When raising and teaching toddlers, we have a lot of power over their language development. It is never too early to start thinking about supporting language skills. If you need a language activity for toddlers, check out these play-based, nurturing ideas.
Importance of Toddler Language Development
Language development in the early years can impact a person’s ability to communicate and comprehend over a lifetime. A child’s vocabulary starts to snowball during the toddler years.
As communication skills develop, parents and educators need to make sure they are providing a language-rich environment. This is also the time to closely monitor language development to catch speech and communication delays early.
Activities for 10 Months to 2 Years Old
Reading board books with caregivers
Babies and toddlers learn language through positive reading experiences. Board books are best for early language development because they are baby-safe to explore. Caregivers can describe illustrations and connect the stories to the child’s real life.
The day will come when your toddler has a favorite book they want to read over and over.
For now, you get to choose which books you love and want to read together. Younger toddlers get plenty out of a reading experience where the adult is delighted and engaged.
Discover all the best books for toddlers.
Creating quality home libraries
Literacy skills begin with access to quality children’s books. Babies and toddlers don’t need a fully-stocked bLiteracy skills begin with access to quality children’s books. Create a reading routine, set up a cozy reading nook, or start a weekly library tradition.
Babies and toddlers don’t need a fully-stocked bookshelf. What’s most important is to create a space in your home (and your schedule) to share joyful reading time with children.
Learn more about choosing quality children’s books for toddlers.
Want to create the perfect cozy home library? I have a resource for that.
Peek-a-boo is a classic game that’s beloved by babies and toddlers. It is one of the first social games that babies catch onto. Peek-a-boo also mimics the rhythm of serve-and-return communication.
Using baby sign language
Introducing a few baby signs to older infants and young toddlers helps boost language development. Children learn best when concepts combine mind and body.
If you do use baby sign language, be intentional about saying the word with the sign. This helps build the language connection for your child.
I can make a spectacular argument that sensory play supports every learning domain.
Actually, that’s probably why I started this entire website.
Anyway, sensory play is the perfect opportunity to introduce interesting new vocabulary. Take time to describe what your child is feeling, smelling, seeing, hearing, and even tasting.
Here are some fantastic sensory play ideas:
Singing is a great way to promote language development. Introduce music in whatever ways feel comfortable for you. If that means only singing to the radio, that’s fine. You can also turn normal routines into songs or sing favorite lullabies.
Trust me, you do not always need to play children’s songs. Your toddler will get more from the experience if they see you engaged and enjoying it.
Fingerplays and action songs are a great way to promote language development.
- Itsy Bitsy Spider
- I’m Bringing Home a Baby Bumblebee
- 5 Little Monkeys
Naming familiar objects
For younger toddlers, simply labeling familiar objects is a great way to build vocabulary. Adding descriptions is a bonus.
- “Let’s put on your yellow flower shirt.”
- “Here are the crackers. You loved these round crackers.”
Drawing your child’s attention to what they are experiencing and language is so powerful. This builds both language and cognitive skills.
- “Your toes feel cold. They were cold when you got out of the bath too.”
- “That was a big yawn. I yawn when I’m tired. Are you sleepy?”
Asking open-ended questions
Remember when I said “quizzing” is not a developmentally appropriate way to support language? I did that.
However, open-ended questions are golden for language development. Even for children who are learning words, open-ended questions help boost language. Instead of you repeating the same question, you can start introducing new language?
Closed (and potentially quizzing) Questions
- What color is that?
- What animal is that?
- What is this called?
- “The cat is gone. Where do you think she’s hiding?”
- “We cleaned up. What should we do next?”
I made a whole list of open-ended questions. Memorize a handful of these and get in the habit of working them into playtime.
Serve + return conversations
Serve-and-return is taking turns communicating with your child. This could as simple as exchanging smiles.
For children who aren’t verbal yet, serve-and-return is responding to their coos, cries, and squeals.
Focusing on the rhythm of a serve-and-return conversation helps young toddlers learn how to communicate.
Playing with Letter Sounds + Rhymes
Playing with letter sounds and rhymes helps a toddler’s brain build language connections. Many children’s songs and books already emphasize alliteration.
You can draw your child’s attention to these sounds in everyday conversations.
“There is a bluebird. Oh it’s a buh-loo buh-ird.”
“These flowers are fabulous. Fabulous flowers.”
You can also use alliteration and rhymes to create treasure baskets or a themed reading time. Toddlers are not developmentally ready to identify sounds on their own, but they can still begin to build connections.
Treasure Basket Ideas:
- Doughnut toy
- Toy dog
- Letter D magnet
- Toy strawberry
- Toy snake
Books with Rhyme + Alliteration
Narrating Your Actions
Narrating your actions also promotes language development. This means describing what you’re doing as you’re doing it.
For example, “I’m putting on my shoes. I’m tying my laces. After this, I’m going to find my coat.”
You can also narrate your child’s actions. For example, “You’re putting the block on top of the other block. The tower is getting taller.”
Face-to-face interactions are how children learn to shape their mouths to form sounds and how to communicate nonverbally. Engage in face-to-face interactions with your child as often as possible. This means making eye contact, using facial expressions, and vocalizing.
Treasure baskets are an easy way to introduce loose parts to younger toddlers. As toddlers manipulate and investigate the treasure items, you can talk about each item. This is a great chance to share new vocabulary and have conversations.
Treasure basket ideas:
- Metallic objects
- Circles + round objects
- Nature objects
- Magnetic objects
- Monochrome (all the objects are the same color)
Ultimate Loose Parts Material List
This is an alternative version of a treasure basket with a the theme is a specific book.
- Toy fish
- Mirror (for practicing pouting face)
- Empty peanut butter jar
- ABC magnets
- Toy bears
- Toy mouse
Nursery Rhyme Themes:
- Lamb toy (Mary Had a Little Lamb)
- Spider toy + rainstick (Itsy Bitsy Spider)
- Watch + toy mouse (Hickory Dickory Dock)
Baby Dolls + Stuffed Animals
For older infants and young toddlers, baby dolls and stuffed animals are often the first props in pretend play. Dramatic play becomes more complex as a child gets older and is valuable in developing language and communication skills.
At this age, they need you to model how to use toys in dramatic play. Model conversations, narrate caring for a baby doll, or have the toys act out simple social scenarios. Toddlers will be able to practice using the words and sounds they are learning.
Giving your child simple instructions is a way for them to build receptive language skills.
- “Can you hand me that book, please?”
- “Find your shoe and bring it here.”
- “Toss that paper in the trash.”
Don’t use this activity to test how well your child can follow directions. Instead, you are using these opportunities to gently guide your child when they are confused or don’t understand a request. You are giving them the language they need to problem-solve.
- “Oh, I needed the book. You gave me the box. The book is beside it.”
- “Do you need help finding your shoe? Check under the blanket.”
- “Hey, you found the trash can. Thanks for helping me clean up the kitchen.”
- “Try asking mom where the cup is.”
Telling stories builds language and can help a child learn more about their family or community.
This is a perfect activity to do while driving in a car or walking. You can tell stories from books, make up your own, or share stories from your own life.
Art + Dictation
Asking your child to share about their artwork is a perfect way to build language. Toddlers can practice sharing what they created. Adding dictation to art helps capture your child’s words. Take a moment to write exactly how your child described it at the bottom of the art.
- “It blue.”
- “I did it!”
As children get a little older, always ask permission before writing on their artwork. You can add a post-it note or write on the back if they want you to capture their description without altering their creations.
Talking During Care Routines
Nothing more personal than the moments you provide direct care to your baby or toddler. Rocking to sleep, bathing, changing diapers, feeding, and dressing are all very intimate moments. Use these times to really connect with your children and introduce language.
Narrate While Your Child Problem Solves
This activity will make any play more language-rich. It also helps your child preserve the information they just learned.
- “Oh, that didn’t fit. Yes, try rotating the block like that.”
- “You are trying so hard to reach that. You lifted up on your tippy-toes and reached the book.”
There are endless opportunities for language learning when you explore the outdoors. Point out different colors, shapes, sizes, and textures as you walk. Describe the actions of animals and people you see.
Ask your child questions about what they are experiencing.
- “I see a red bird. Do you see it? It’s flying from that tree to the next one.”
- “The wind is blowing. Do you feel it? It’s so strong!”
- “That dog is so big! And he’s barking.”
- “What do you think that kid is saying?”
The Best Cognitive Outdoor Activities for Toddlers
Yes, a math activity to promote language skills. When you count with your child, you are not only teaching them numbers but also new words. As you count different items with your child, help them describe what they are seeing.
- “One, two, three, four blueberries. Can you eat one?”
- “Five flowers. I wonder if bees are eating from all five?”
- “Ten steps. Let’s see if we can take ten more.”
Labeling feelings is a great way to help your child understand and begin to regulate their emotions. It also helps them learn the words to express what they are thinking and feeling.
- “You look so happy! Did something fun happen?”
- “You seem a little sad today. Want to sit with me?”
Activities for 2 Years to 3 Years Old
Reading Books About Your Child’s Interests
We know that reading boosts language skills. But once toddlers get a little older, they begin to seek out specific interests (e.g., dinosaurs, dogs, cars, babies, cookies, birthdays).
Choosing books relevant to your toddler helps them get the most from reading time. Then you can also use books your child loves to bridge to other topics and vocabulary.
Asking Open-Ended Questions
As toddlers get older, open-ended questions will help expand their thinking and language. For older infants and younger toddlers, open-ended questions were a way to support cognitive skills.
Once toddlers begin picking up more words, open-ended questions can lead to engaging conversations.
Closed, quizzing questions don’t build language and communication skills.
Avoid using questions like these too often:
- What letter is that?
- What does that animal say?
- What is this called?
Open-ended questions inspire conversation and thinking. They require your child to use more than one word to answer. Open-ended questions also encourage critical thinking.
Try questions like these:
- “I hear a bird singing. What do you think it is saying?”
- “You worked so hard to build this tower. Now, what are you going to do?”
- “Where do you think the cat is hiding?”
I made a whole list that you can get here. Memorize a handful of these and get in the habit of working open-ended questions into playtime.
Creating a Quality Reading Space
Creating a quality, inviting reading space sends the message that books are valuable. You want an area that is comfortable and inviting for your child. Don’t overthink it too much. A cushion on the floor next to a bin of books creates a wonderful reading space.
Imaginative games allow your child to practice using new words in a fun and creative way.
Imaginative play for toddlers:
- Pretend play
- Toy phones, old analog phones or cellphones, microphones
- Sensory play
- Block building
Songs + Nursery Rhymes
Children’s songs and nursery rhymes often include rhymes, alliterations, and exciting vocabulary.
Here are some ideas to add more songs and nursery rhymes to your toddler’s play:
- Post nursery rhymes near a reading area, bathroom, or changing table
- Create a nursery rhyme book basket
- Choose a song to include in your daily routines
- Toothbrushing song
- Clean up song
- Good morning song
Point Out Environmental Print
Environmental print is the print that surrounds us in our everyday lives. This can include street signs, labels on food, and logos. Pointing out environment print promotes language by showing your child how words are used in the world around them.
Environmental print activities:
- Point out signs on car rides or walks
- Read signs in buildings
- Talk about book titles
- Talk about recipes while cooking
Loose Parts Play
Loose parts are any open-ended materials that your toddler can investigate and manipulate. Loose parts activities engage your toddler’s curiosity and create the perfect opportunity to introduce new vocabulary or open-ended questions.
- “This shell feels smooth, but yours feels bumpy.”
- “That’s called a whisk, and you stir with it like this.”
- “What does this remind you of?”
Sensory play gives your child a chance to practice using new words to describe the sensations they are experiencing. In a toddler classroom, children gather around large sensory tables and can practice communicating with each other.
Here are some fantastic sensory play ideas:
Art + Dictation
Asking your child to share their artwork is a perfect way to build language. Take a moment to write what your child described on the bottom of the art, even if it is just a word or two. Adding dictation to art helps capture your child’s words, and they get to practice communicating what they have created.
- “For mommy.”
- “That’s May.”
- “Bubble. A bubble. A pink.”
You should always ask permission before writing on a child’s artwork. You can add a post-it note or write the dictation on the back of the paper.
For art not on a piece of paper, you can fold a notecard in half and display a child’s description beside their artwork. This option works for play dough, blocks, or other 3D art.
I mentioned songs and nursery rhymes already, but this activity is for the adults who are burnt out on children’s music. I understand! Your toddler will love to share some of your favorite songs with you.
Create a playlist of songs you are comfortable sharing with your child or classroom. When everyone needs a musical dance break, use this playlist. When toddlers hear you sing along to the music, it helps them learn the words in the lyrics.
Play dough is creative and sensory-stimulating activity. In the beginning, you should spend time modeling how to use dough. As toddlers get older, they are ready to explore dough safely. Eventually, toddlers will be ready for more complex dough activities. You can add more materials, add dough to sensory bins, or make a simple dough recipe together.
Learn more about the benefits of play dough.
A scavenger hunt is a great way to support your toddler’s love of exploring. Toddlers can name and describe the objects they find.
Toddlers will build language as they work with an adult to name the items they are searching for and problem-solve where to find them. Adults can use open-ended questions to guide toddlers.
Pretend play becomes more complex through the toddler years. What begins as simple object play slowly becomes a social game with established roles. For younger toddlers, pretend play is a chance to act out scenarios. Older toddlers will begin to interact with peers to role play.
Adults can promote language in pretend play by:
- Adding props with print (menus, empty food boxes or cans, or greeting cards)
- Introducing new vocabulary
- “You put that hat on and look like a chef. Chefs cook food.”
- Ask open-ended questions
- “What else can I get you for the tool table?”
Dancing + Yoga
Connecting language to body movement is a fantastic way to promote language development. Toddlers learn best when there is a connection between their bodies and minds.
Talk about how your toddler feels or narrate their actions to add more language.
- “My heart is beating faster from that dance.”
- “When we turn upside down, the room looks different.”
- “We can feel our legs stretch when we do this.”
- “Show me some of your favorite dance moves.”
You can also introduce your toddler to dance and yoga terminology if you’re comfortable. A little research can give you simple ballet terms or names for yoga poses.
Naturally, I am a big proponent of toddlers spending time outdoors. The weather, creatures, and plants all provide a perfect opportunity to talk about new words or concepts. Your toddler’s curious brain is primed to learn during rich-sensory outdoor play.
- “We can hear birds singing.”
- “The water feels so cold on my feet.”
- “You had sand stuck to your leg.”
- “I see bees on the pink flowers.”
Talking About Weather
Weather is a golden conversation topic for toddlers. Unlike many topics associated with circle times (btw, circle time is not developmentally appropriate for toddlers), the weather is actually relevant to toddlers. The weather provides a sensory experience that toddlers can connect to. Talking about the weather is a chance for adults to introduce new vocabulary.
- “It’s cold today. What do you think we should wear?”
- “The rain made everything wet.”
- “The wind keeps making the leaves swirl.”
- “That sun feels warm on our face.”
- “It is hot outside this afternoon. We will take water.”
Interesting weather vocabulary for toddlers:
- booming thunder
- misty rain
- bright lightning
- dark storm clouds
Sorting activities are a natural step in toddler play. Once they become more familiar with objects, they are ready to sort, compare, and contrast them. Remember, each toddler will develop classifying skills are an individual pace.
Adults need to be intentional about describing characteristics, counting aloud, and using open-ended questions to promote language skills during sorting activities.
Sorting activity ideas:
- Sorting bears
- Rocks + shells
- Different-sized pinecones
- Muffin tins + pompoms
- Sectioned serving platters + animal toys
- Bowls + flowers
- Flat stones + round stones
Telling Stories Together
As toddlers build language skills, they will be able to start telling stories or adding to the stories you tell. Wordless books and art are great ways to build storytelling skills.
Another way toddlers develop storytelling skills is with toy animals or people figures. For younger toddlers, it helps to model how to make toys “talk” and “interact.” Setting up small world scenes can inspire more storytelling too.
Action figures and toys of favorite characters help with storytelling, but children often focus on re-creating scenes from the shows or movies. Toddlers will tap into their own imagination with more “generic” toys versus a trademarked character.
Touch + Name Hidden Objects
This is a fun, silly game for toddlers to practice describing or naming objects. Hide a few items in a pillowcase or a box with a hole cut out. Your toddler will reach in to feel an object and try to name it. If they can’t name it, ask them to describe how it feels.
I love this activity because you can do it over and over with different items. This activity will test your toddler’s cognitive and language skills in a hilarious, delightful way.
Adding a group of related items will help your toddler build classifying skills too. For example, all the objects could be types of toy vehicles, or all the items could be kitchen utensils.
Naming emotions is a powerful way to support language and emotional development. The ability to communicate is a key part of language development.
For toddlers who are just beginning to understand emotions, it helps when adults intentionally name emotions. Parents and educators should also model how to talk about feelings.
- “The baby bear in this book looks so sad. She misses her mom.”
- “I feel frustrated that I burnt supper. I’m going to take a deep breath in the other room.”
- “You seemed mad when you threw that toy. Want to sit with me and talk?”
- “You were smiling when you reached the top. You probably feel so proud.”
Helping with Meals + Chores
In my article How to Stop Losing Patience with Your Toddler, I introduced why parents should include toddlers in daily household tasks. Essentially, I advocated for parents to stop trying to “get chores over with.” I wanted parents to mimic how teachers in early childhood classrooms will include toddlers in their daily routines.
Toddlers learn language through exposure to it. And unfortunately, household chores and routines take up a large part of parents’ time at home. Instead of toddlers having screen time, a better option is to find ways to include them or find engaging ways for them to play nearby.
- Putting dishes in the dishwasher
- Setting plates on the table
- Playing with a kitchen prop box
- Reading books in the laundry room
Prop boxes are great for pulling out when you need a quick activity. Prop boxes are themed boxes of props for pretend play.
Some examples of a prop box for toddlers could be:
- Winter: gloves, mittens, and winter hats
- Construction: toy tools + hard hat
- Doctor: gauze, ice pack, bandaids, doctor toys
- Restaurant: notepad, menu, apron, play food
Labels on Familiar Objects
Labeling familiar objects is an excellent way to add environmental print to your home or classroom. Use stick-on labels, masking tape, or a label maker to label familiar items. Place the labels are your child’s eye level.
DIY books give toddlers a chance to bring their language to life. While there are plenty of homemade book options, my favorites for toddlers are to use a photo album or a binder.
Toddlers can help choose photos to put into a photo album. These photos can inspire conversations and storytelling.
Binders with plastic page protectors are the perfect way to store a child’s artwork. By adding dictation, the book of art becomes its own reading experience. Toddlers will begin to better understand that the print on their artwork is their own words and descriptions.
Writing activities help toddlers understand that print has meaning. Unlike younger toddlers, who are learning to manipulate writing utensils, older toddlers are developing more advanced writing skills.
Older toddlers will begin to scribble more intentionally, with lines of scribbles that look like cursive, well, gibberish. Toddlers will start to make letter-like forms too.
Adults can support writing development by creating writing spaces. Keep appropriate writing materials and paper available at all times.
In toddler classrooms, add writing utensils and paper to other play areas in the room. Clipboards with loose paper and a colored pencil are accessible and easy to grab-and-go.
More on Toddler Language Development
Screening Toddler Language Development
It’s important to monitor your toddler’s language development and contact a pediatrician if there are any concerns. There are many ways to do this. One easy option is to use the CDC Milestone Tracker. This tracker comes in PDFs or on an app. You can track of your child’s progress and identify any “red flags.”
If you notice that your child is behind in some areas, or if you have any concerns, you should contact the pediatrician. They may refer you to a local early intervention agency for a full developmental assessment (free in the United States).
Ultimately, by screening for delays and getting early help, we can ensure that all children have the opportunity to reach their full potential.
Play and Language Development
Hello. If you have visited this website before, you probably got the impression that my personal teaching philosophy is that learning is best when it is open-ended, interactive, and filled with wonder.
This same philosophy applies to a language activity for toddlers. At this stage of development, toddlers are still trying to figure out the world, one object or concept at a time. They need time to explore at their own individual pace.
In most cases, a toddler who gets to spend plenty of uninterrupted time playing in a language-rich environment will develop normally. And for those children who need extra help, adding more intentional language to their play and daily routines is still the best support.
Ultimately, toddlers who get to playfully engage with the world will develop stronger language skills and a better understanding of the world around them.
What are Language Activities?
Language activities are anything that gets your child verbally or nonverbally communicating. Language activities develop skills in:
- receptive language (understanding others)
- expressive language (communicating to others)
Tips and Strategies to Support Language Development
- Don’t quiz toddlers with questions.
- Minimize screen time or make it interactive.
- Instead of correcting toddlers, gently repeat the sentence with the proper word or pronunciation.
- Expand on toddlers’ one and two-word sentences.
- Child: “Baby!”
- You: “Yes, a baby is playing over there.”
Toddlers are developing language at a rapid rate. The best way adults can support toddler language is through exposure to it. Engaging activities that connect the body and mind, sensory-rich play, and language-filled environments are some of the best ways to help toddlers learn. I hope these activities find a place in your home or your lesson plans.
Please leave a comment and tell me some of your favorite ways to add language to outdoor play.