Between his newfound ability to walk and constantly improving language skills, your 1-year-old is so much fun to spend time with—which is important, because your interactions with him are essential to her development.
"Between 12 months and two years, kids are starting to do things on their own, seeing cause and effect, and actively engaging with others in their environment, " says Robert Myers, Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychologist, founder of the Child Development Institute, and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine. "Parents stimulating them, interacting with them, teaching them things, and exposing them to age-appropriate challenges and experiences is very important to encouraging development, and to the children exploring on their own and learning from interacting with their environment."
But there's no need to pull out a mountain of toys with all the bells and whistles—simple activities work well. "I can sit down with a child with one block and come up with 100 different activities because it's all about being playful and interacting with them," explains Roni Cohen Leiderman, Ph.D., dean of the Mailman Segal Center for Human Development at Nova Southeastern University, and co-author of Let's Play and Learn Together.
Not sure where to start? We rounded up several development-promoting activities that are fun and easy.
1. LITTLE DRUMMERS
Materials needed: Rattle, spoons, pots and pans, bells, cymbals, drums
What to do: Make music using percussion instruments. "Find fun tunes to play that have a rousing beat," suggests Dr. Myers. "Play along with her as well as encouraging her to play by herself."
Skills learned: Coordination, listening skills, and musical exploration
2. PLAYING HOUSE
Materials needed: Large cardboard box or store-bought play tunnel or playhouse
What to do: Create a fort out of a cardboard box, play tunnel, or playhouse. Include an entrance and an exit, and encourage your child to go in and out. (You might need to show him at first.) Up the entertainment factor with some pretend play, like knocking on the door or ringing the doorbell, and asking if anyone is home, Dr. Myers suggests.
Skills learned: Social skills, gross motor skills and exploring their environment
3. TELEPHONE CALL
Materials needed: Toy telephone or old phone
What to do: Hand a phone to your child and keep one for yourself. Pretend to make calls, and hold conversations with each other or imaginary people. Use funny voices, and create silly characters on the other line.
Variations: Some play telephones allow you to record your and your child's voices and play them back, which can enhance the fun.
Skills learned: Language and social development
4. BEACH PARTY
Materials needed: Sand, water, buckets, spoons, plastic shovels, large tub
What to do: Sand and water play are great activities when your child reaches 18 months. Fill a large tub with water or sand, and give your child free rein to dig, pour, scoop, and more. "Play along with them as well as encouraging solo play," says Dr. Myers. "When you're playing with them, talk and sing along. Encourage them to copy what you're doing, and then try to copy what they're doing." It's important to note: Never leave your child unattended around water.
Variations: Have another child join in parallel play.
Skills learned: Creative play, fine motor skills, tactile stimulation, and social development
5. TUBE TALK
Materials needed: Empty paper towel tube
What to do: Talk or make silly sounds to your baby through a cardboard tube, and see how she reacts and responds to the change in your normal speaking voice. Let her take a turn to see what sounds she can make. "Kids this age love to play with language, and this activity gives them an opportunity to practice new and novel sounds," Dr. Leiderman says. " Language is really about imitating sounds. Babbling turns into real words, which turns into a sense of humor."
Skills learned: Auditory discrimination, turn taking
6. GO-GET GAME
What to do: Send your child on different "errands" around the house, asking him to "get" his shoes, bring you the ball, or find and deliver his cup. Besides letting him practice his receptive language skills by following directions, this activity lets him show you how much he can accomplish by himself.
Variations: Add silly directions, like "put the sock on your head," to encourage a sense of humor.
Skills learned: Understanding directions, memory skills
7. STICKY STEP
Materials needed: Clear contact paper
What to do: Cut a piece of clear contact paper at least two feet long. Remove the backing and tape the contact paper, sticky side up, to the floor or carpeting. Then, let your child have fun running, jumping, dancing, or just standing on the paper while wiggling their toes on the sticky surface. "This is a fresh approach to learning about their bodies," Dr. Leiderman explains. "Very often, we as parents think we have to have rules for games and do things in order. Sticky paper is just a fun free-for-all."
Variations: Put small toys on the sticky surface and let your toddler experiment with trying to pick them up.
Skills learned: Sensory awareness, muscle strength, body awareness
8. SPOT THE DOT
Materials needed: Lipstick
What to do: Put a dot of red lipstick on your toddler's face, and distract her for a few minutes before putting her in front of a mirror. If your child reacts to her image by touching her nose or trying to wipe off the mark, it indicates she realizes there is something out of the ordinary in her reflection. "Children when they are very young don't have a sense of self, but at this age it's clear to them who they are when they look in the mirror," Dr. Leiderman says. But don't worry if she doesn't react yet—she will soon!
Variation: Put a silly hat on your child's head and watch her take it off.
Skills learned: Self-awareness and identity
9. LET'S COUNT
What to do: Toddlers love to count their fingers and toes, so show your little one how to touch each digit only once as you count out loud. Don't fret if your kid counts out of order, Dr. Leiderman says. "Kids counting in order is not important," she says. "Just like you're giving them new words, numbers are part of life. Use them in context to count toes or objects, so they can eventually learn the concepts of numbers."
Variations: Count the stairs as you go up and down, count while you're waiting for the light to turn green, and count the bubbles floating in the air.
Skills learned: Basic number skills, one-on-one correspondence skills
10. CRUMB WRITING
Materials needed: Baby rice cereal or finely crumbed crackers, cookie sheet
What to do: Spread the rice cereal or crumbled crackers on the cookie sheet, and show him how to use a finger to "write" in the crumbs. "This gives [children] the opportunity to imitate the adults and older siblings in their lives, which is a major meaningful activity of early childhood," says Rachel Coley, occupational therapist, author of Simple Play: Easy Fun For Babies, and founder of CanDoKiddo.com. Bonus: The "sand" is edible! (Of course, supervise your child closely.)
Skills learned: Early handwriting skills, understanding cause and effect.
Materials needed: Play tunnel, puzzles, multi-part toys
What to do: Divide puzzle pieces or parts of a toy set into two piles, placing a pile at either end of a play tunnel so your child has to "commute" back and forth through the tunnel to complete his task.
Skills learned: Sustained attention, sensory processing, learning how to complete multi-step sequences