How to Play With One-Year-Old?

By Shannon Bussnick, LSW

You can find Shannon’s blog at

Now that your child has smashed their first birthday cake and started to take their very first steps, you may be wondering: how should I be playing with my one-year-old to support their development and growth?

In order to best answer this question, it’s important to consider common milestones for this age and understand that every child is different when it comes to the rate at which they’ll master certain skills or navigate new emotions.

Referring to age-appropriate milestones helps parents and pediatricians alike to evaluate a child’s development and growth—and to address any concerns that may arise in a timelier manner.

Before we discuss some great activities for playing with a one-year-old, let’s take a look at some common developmental milestones for this age group.

Developmental Milestones at One Year

Per the CDC,How your child plays, learns, speaks, acts, and moves offers important clues about your child’s development” (2021).

With this information, parents will be able to better understand what skills their child has mastered, and what skills they’re just beginning to explore. Parents will then be more equipped to choose play activities that will benefit their child’s development as a whole.


  • Is nervous or shy around strangers
  • Becomes upset when mom or dad leave
  • Is fearful in certain situations
  • Has likes and dislikes
  • Repeats sounds or actions when looking for attention
  • Helps when getting dressed by putting out an arm or leg
  • Plays games like peek-a-boo


  • Responds to simple requests
  • Uses gestures such as shaking head for “no” or nodding for “yes” and waving “bye-bye”
  • Verbal sounds become clearer and more defined
  • Says “mama” or “dada”
  • Attempts to mimic the words and sounds of others


  • Explores items by shaking, banging, or throwing
  • Locates hidden items easily
  • Can identify an item when named
  • Copies gestures
  • Becomes comfortable with various tasks like drinking from a cup and brushing hair
  • Can place items into a container and take them out
  • Follows simple directions


  • Can sit without assistance
  • Pulls up to a standing position
  • Walks while holding on to furniture or other steady items, known as “cruising”
  • May take a few steps on their own without assistance
  • May stand without assistance

(CDC, 2021)

Ways to Play With One-Year-Old

When it comes to deciding which play activities to try out with your one-year-old, it may be helpful to focus on activities that will develop critical thinking and enhance creativity, increase autonomy and build self-confidence, and strengthen the bond between parent and child.

Focusing on types of play that promote self-exploration, and that encourage young minds to ‘think outside of the box,” can have a multitude of benefits for their development and growth.

Let’s take a look at 5 simple and innovative ways to play with a one-year-old in the comfort of your own home and neighborhood.

Nature Walk

There are many ways to play outside with your one-year-old that will open up countless opportunities for creativity.

Start by getting a basket, brown paper bag, mama’s purse, or whatever you can find to collect nature’s little treasures—and bring it along.

While on a nature walk through your neighborhood or front yard, you’ll find there are many items you can collect and explore with your child.

Collecting leaves, breathing in the scent of a pine tree, and exploring an assortment of pebbles may sound simple on the surface, but will provide a grand learning experience for your child.

Talk about the shape, color, smell, sound, or texture of the item/s you choose.

Water Play/Sensory Bins

You know that your child loves water but sometimes it’s challenging to get to the pool or the beach—or maybe it’s winter.

So… why not bring the water to you instead?

First, you’ll want to whip out some Tupperware, a mixing bowl, or even your child’s bathtub for this at home adventure.

Next, line the floors with a few towels (don’t forget this step!) and pour a low-level of water inside of the bin or bowl.

Now, you and your child are ready to choose a few child-safe (and water-friendly!) items to put inside like stacking cups, animal toys, or bath books. Remember, you can always add more water as you go!

One-year-olds will love to feel the changing temperature of the water, fill up their toys and proceed to pour the contents out, and splash around like a fish out of water.

You can also utilize opportunities for pretend play by showing your one-year-old how to navigate wash-and-dry stations.

Sensory bins can be filled with various child-safe materials and substances, such as:

  • Water
  • Soap/Foam
  • Rice
  • Sand
  • Dried pasta

As you supervise this play activity, allow your toddler to explore the items more freely once submerged in the substance.

Mess-Free Art

There are many ways for you little one to explore art and enhance creativity without using the walls of your home as their canvas!

Here are a few activities you can try out with your one-year-old:

  • Hand and foot tracing (Using those little hands and feet as your guide, show your child how you can trace many parts of the body and decorate their pictures using as many art materials as they’d like!)
  • Bathtub painting (Using washable and child-safe paint, allow your one-year-old to explore a new way of finger painting in a place where clean up is made easy!)
  • Grab some chalk (In the driveway or at the park, chalk is a great tool to incorporate in play—parents can assist with this activity by drawing shapes for their little one, sorting the sizes of the chalk, and talking about the different colors.)
  • Bring a cardboard box to life (With all those packages coming in the mail, you’re bound to have a surplus of cardboard boxes laying around—a perfect opportunity for your one-year-old to grab some crayons, hop in, and let their imagination guide them the rest of the way!)

I Spy…With My Little Eye

This activity makes a great addition to the “Nature Walk,” but can be done separately too.

If able, lower yourself to your child’s level and begin the game by saying “I spy…” followed by something that is in the room (or environment) with the both of you.

For example, you might say: “I spy something furry!” and be thinking of the family dog.

*If your child is unable to communicate verbally, look out for nonverbal signs of communication like pointing or moving towards the object.

To enhance the experience, describe the visual elements of the item to your child, what the item can be used for, and incorporate touch and feel elements of play, too.

Making Music

Everyone loves a dynamic jam session every now and then—and your one-year-old is no different!

Though, tread carefully… amplified volume and constant sound for long durations of time could result in an overload of external stimuli for your child.

Start by playing softer music with your one-year-old and see how they respond.

Some children prefer soothing instrumental music while others prefer classic rock. The Beatles and The Beach Boys are always a good choice!

As your child grows, you may begin incorporating dance moves as the music plays and want to integrate different instruments like a keyboard, xylophone, or makeshift drum using a bowl or empty canister. Humming and tapping can be a great addition to this play activity too.

Whichever genre of music or instrument/s you use, stick to one at first and follow your child’s lead from there.

Interested in more learning activities for your growing child? Make sure to check out fun learning games for children.

Photo by Pixelshot


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