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The Best Activities for 2-Year-Olds, According to a Child Development Expert

They're really not terrible at all.

Two-year-olds get a bad rap. They may have the occasional (or frequent) tantrum, true, but the “terrible” age is often a golden period of curiosity, bemusement, increased abilities, and even cooperation. They are, generally speaking, interested in…everything, but they have a few behavioral leanings that make certain learning activities optimal — pretend play, scribbling, and socializing among them.

When picking out activities for 2-year-olds, start with their interests, as well as their current abilities, then create experiences that match these. Look for open-ended toys that can be used in a variety of ways, advises Rebecca Parlakian, a senior director of programs at the nonprofit children’s advocacy organization Zero to Three. This provides an opportunity for the child to develop multiple skillsets at the same time.

They also like a challenge. “We want children to have fun, and having fun means they are challenged and it’s within their ability to master the challenge.” So, rather than propping your 2-year-old with a rattle, give them a puzzle or, better still, a set of blocks. At age 2 they might bang them together, but at age 3 they will build a house and by age 5, an entire village.

Don’t be afraid to include your 2-year-old in household activities, as well. “As much as young children learn through play, they also learn through rich, responsive interactions with caregiving adults and peers.” When we bring children into our everyday activities, they experience it in the same joyful way as they experience play. This kind of involvement, when matched with a show of appreciation from the adult, ultimately strengthens bonds and relationships.

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Play Activities for 2-Year-Olds

Bears on a Ladder

Tools: Counting Bears, Paper, Marker            

How to Play: This activity is an open-ended one that could help expand your child’s vocabulary as well as early math skills.  Draw a ladder on a paper and have your 2-year-old move the counting bear around it. You can use directional worlds like. “Put two bears on the ladder.” Move the blue bear up the ladder. Place the red bear below the blue bear.

Dress-Up

Tools: Costumes

How to Play: Ask your 2-year-old what they would like to be, then give them a set of clothes and watch them create an entire scenario. This activity gives them the creative license to use their imagination. It also helps them improve their communication and thinking skills. Don’t be surprised if you discover a mini Tarantino.

Simon Says

Tools: N/A

How to Play: This classic game will help improve your child’s communication and listening skills. Feel free to explore different target areas as you play the game. A good rule of thumb is to pay attention to what your child is currently good at, then identify areas for improvement and work that into the game.

Sink or Float

Tools: Large Bowl, Water, Toys

How to Play: Fill up a large bowl with water, then get toys and items of different properties and have your child drop them individually into the bowl of water. As they drop each item in, have them identify whether the items sink or float. Aside from the fact that kids love playing with water, this will also serve as a great way to have them introduced to the basic elements of science. 

Draw on a Whiteboard

Tools: Whiteboard, Marker

How to Play: This activity is as simple as it sounds, but it allows your 2-year-old to explore their creativity while passing time. Simply prop a whiteboard on a wall and invite them to come to draw on it. Then watch as their artistic tendencies take flight. (The key here is that they are standing while performing this activity.) Don’t worry about if the drawing “looks like” anything; instead of asking “what is it,” ask them to tell you about it.

Softball Balloons

Tools: Balloons or a Nerf or Other Soft Ball

How to Play: Clear out an area of the room and give your 2-year-old a soft ball or balloon to play with. Since they are at the stage where they tend to push, pull, and throw things, this activity will be right up their alley. The advantage, softballs are not strong enough to mess up your beloved flat screen tv.

Chore Activities for 2-Year-Olds

Sorting Laundry

Tools: Laundry Basket, Clothes

How to Play: Ask your 2-year-old to “help out” with the laundry. Sorting clothes is a fun activity for 2-year-olds that targets their concentration, hand-eye coordination, and ability to implement simple instructions. You can target specific aspects of their development: ask them to sort by colors (sense of sight) or by textures (sense of feeling).

Cleaning Windows/Painting Steps

Tools: Spray Bottle, Water, Cleaning Cloth or Paintbrush

How to Play: Kids love water, and these are easy and interesting ways for them to play with and observe it, without any huge messes. Give them a spray bottle and a rag and ask them to clean off the windows. The wiping is good for their hand-eye coordination, and they’ll enjoy the sense of accomplishing a task. Painting the steps is similar: give them a paintbrush and ask them to “paint” the stairs/fence/house outside.  

Sous-Chef

Tools: Step Stool, Food

How to Play: Give your toddler a step stool and ask them to help you put the carrots in a bowl or make a gingerbread man out of dough. This activity is great for 2-year-olds to build a variety of skills at once: from balance to math skills to fine motor skills. What you see as a chore, your 2-year-old considers an intriguing fun activity and will be excited to help every step of the way.