The Best Activities for 1-Year-Olds

Babies this age are all about using the senses. Here are 10 developmentally sound ways to engage them.

by Lilian Ogbuefi
toddler in blue hoodie pulling on a orange string of play dough - a sensory activity for 1 year olds

The best activities for 1-year-olds are the ones that encourage sensory stimulation. At age 1, children are just beginning to be aware of themselves and their immediate environment, which they explore with increased sensory movement. Urged on by the natural curiosity that promotes development, 1-year-olds touch, gaze, grab, and, of course, suck on things within their reach, using their senses to understand and interact with the world around them.

1-year-olds “are building all areas of development at the same time,” says Rebecca Parlakian, senior director of programs at the nonprofit Zero to Three, which advocates for young children’s well-being and development. So, she explains, it’s important to provide them with toys and activities that support these different areas of development. Some general categories to keep in mind, according to Parlakian:

  • Colorful objects help kids develop visual skills.
  • Blocks or graspable objects support fine motor skills.
  • Baby-safe mirrors and books for tummy time encourage gross motor skills.
  • Musical or stackable instruments help kids with cognitive development.
  • Board books, songs, and rhymes help cultivate language skills.

The rule of thumb when it comes to play activities for 1-year-old kids is “basic is better.” The more a toy is doing by itself, the less a child is learning, Parlakian says. When brainstorming toys and activities for your 1-year-old, think about what specific skills they are trying to develop. A set of colored blocks that a child can grasp, bang together, and build with, for example, will be more beneficial in the long run than a musical box.

Life-Size Portrait

Targets: Gross Motor Skills, Retention, Language

Tools Needed: Print-out Picture

How to Play: Print out a life-size picture of your baby and put it up somewhere on the wall. Then, have them identify their body parts. This activity is a very simple and effortless one that adds fun to learning. It stimulates their cognitive skills, tests their attention span, and also encourages self-identity early on.

Hidden Toys in Rice

Targets: Hand-Eye Coordination, Fine Motor Skills, Gross Motor skills

Tools Needed: Rice, Bowl, Mason Jar, Toys

How to Play: Fill up a bowl with uncooked rice and have your 1-year-old dip their hands into it. Naturally, the child will tend to squeeze, lift, and pour, thus flexing their hand muscles. This sensory activity is more fun for 1-year-olds if you have toys hidden at the bottom: Digging through the bowl to discover what toys are hidden beneath sparks their excitement. If you want to take the activity a little bit further, you can have them scoop the rice into a mason jar using their hands until they find a toy.

Sponge Squeeze

Targets: Hand-Eye Coordination, Fine Motor Skills, Gross Motor Skills

Tools Needed: 2 Empty Bowls, Sponge, Water

How to Play: Place two bowls side by side. Fill the first bowl with water and have your little one soak a sponge in it, then squeeze the water out in the empty bowl. They will be stimulated by the trickle of the water as they squeeze, as well as, its movement from place to place. This sensory activity is a good one for 1-year-olds to flex their dexterity and practice their gross motor skills. At the end of this activity, you can finish up with a lesson: how to clean up after a spill.

Cardboard Tunnel

Targets: Movement, Gross Motor Skills

Tools Needed: Cardboard Box

How to Play: The random boxes your orders come in can now, finally, be put to good use. Convert a large cardboard box into a crawl-through tunnel for babies to explore. Simply secure the box to the floor and you’re good to go. You can spice this activity up by hanging socks or hiding toys that your baby can explore as they crawl through (The Imagination Tree has a good how-to). This activity is great for developing their sense of exploration as well as their gross motor skills.

Ball Sorting

Targets: Hand-Eye Coordination, Fine Motor Skills

Tools Needed: Two Bowls, Tennis Balls

How to Play: Sorting balls with a spoon is a great sensory activity for 1-year-olds that helps improve fine motor skills, as well as hand-eye coordination. Fill up a bowl with colored balls and have your kids transfer them one by one into an empty bowl. To spice up this activity, you can use colored balls and have your kid transfer them into matching colored bowls. This added identification activity is a great advantage to your child’s preschool development.

Piggy Bank

Targets: Hand-Eye Coordination, Fine Motor Skills

Tools Needed: Piggy Bank, Coins Large Bowl

How to Play: You know all that random change you never seem to be able to get rid of? Use it to create an activity for your 1-year-old that will stimulate their sense of sight, sound, touch, and motor skills. Gather the coins into a bowl and have your 1-year-old play around with the coins, then drop them, piece by piece, into a piggy bank. Whenever they’re done, you can empty the piggy bank and they can do it again.

Contact Paper Collage

Targets: Hand-Eye Coordination, Fine Motor Skills, Cognitive Skills

Tools Needed: Contact Paper, Bare Wall

How to Play: The contact-paper collage is a great way to encourage the creativity and curiosity that tend to drive kids at this age, and is a simple and fun way of passing the time. Get contact paper in four to five different colors, cut out pieces, then have your 1-year-old pull out each piece and paste it to the wall. This activity is particularly exciting because it targets four major developmental areas at once: visual, physical, cognitive, and language (insofar as they’re listening to and processing simple instructions).


Target: Gross Motor Skill, Understanding

Tools Needed: Items around the house

How to Play: It’s never too early to teach your kid how to follow simple instructions. A good ‘ol game of fetching teaches babies how to follow through on tasks while also stimulating their senses. It targets understanding, language, gross and fine motor skills. Ask your 1-year-old to fetch items from your home (within your sight) and reward them with a “yay” and a smile, a hug, or a baby high-five when they successfully retrieve them.

Busy Board

Targets: Fine Motor Skills, Retention, Identification

Tools Needed: Cork Board, Miscellaneous Items

How to Play: Parents in general agree that their kids love the busy board. This is not surprising as 1-year-olds are known for their energetic spurts, as well as their tendency to grasp and pull anything with their reach. The busy board ideally tackles the fine motor skills of one-year-olds. You could also have them identify items on the board to test and train their retention capabilities. Anything from drawer handles, keys, pop light, ropes, old toys painted PVC pipes can be attached to a busy board. The rule is simple. Keep it fun. Keep it busy.

Fabric Mystery Box

Targets: Fine Motor Skills, Retention, Identification

Tools Needed: Tissue Box, Fabric Scraps

How to Play: Who doesn’t love surprises? Definitely not your 1-year-old. Fill an old tissue box with fabric scraps and have your kid pull them out. This activity is a fun and mess-free way to encourage your child’s cognitive and physical skills. They will get excited as they pull out fabrics of different colors from the box. To add more spice to this activity, have them try to identify the colors as they pull them out.