Raise Smart Toddler - Articles

Toddler and mom playing stacking game

Your child’s brain grows at an explosive rate during the first three years of his life.  During these critical brain-growth periods, long, thin nerve pathways grow inside the brain.  These are wirings that connect and carry electrical impulses from brain cell to brain cell. The resulting network, which grows daily in the young brain, forms the neurological foundation of skills that your child will use for the rest of his life.  Experiences after birth, in conjunction with your child’s gene, determine the eventual wiring of the human brain.  

Existing connections eagerly await new experiences that shape the neural networks for language, reasoning, problem solving, and moral values.  New experiences build upon established patterns and create new patterns and networks for more learning.  Connections that are used repeatedly will become permanent.   Those that are not used get discarded.

You can help your toddler jump-start his brain development by engaging in games and fun activities with him.  Everything you do with your toddler - playing, talking, eating, walking, reading, cuddling, and singing help jump-start his brain.   When you use your imagination with him, for example, you help his brain to make “imagination pathways” of its own.  

Children remember experiences that have an emotional component.  Gentle, loving fun combined with responsive language from you creates an atmosphere in which learning thrives.  That's why it is important for you to bond with your child in these activities. Things you do together enhance his learning (among many other benefits). This is something that play-alone high-tech toys like tablets, video games, tv and others will not be able to offer

Below are some brain-boosting toddler games and activities that you can play with your toddler.  It is grouped into specific skills that are being exercised.  Although a specific skill is highlighted, typically, each game involves developing a combination of skills.  

Also these activities are meant to provide ideas and inspire you to come up with others.  Feel free to make variations on these games.  For example, "Trip to the Garden" can be a "Trip to the Beach", or "Trip to the Park".  Just make sure that you play with your toddler in a safe environment using safe materials.

(See Also: Best Educational Apps for Toddlers and Babies)

Problem-solving skills

Babies begin their problem-solving lives with basic cause-and-effect reasoning and flexibility. By the time young children reach toddler age, their problem-solving skills begin to mature.   They learn curiosity, patience, working towards achieving a goal, and gaining confidence in their ability to reach a solution.

Block Patterns
One and a half and above
Use building blocks to make simple structural patterns such as 2 blocks with one above, three in a row set of blocks, and so on.  Playfully ask your toddler to copy the pattern.   Afterwards, ask him to make his own pattern.   Show your toddler that you are having fun copying his pattern.   Make the patterns more complicated as your child becomes more skillful in figuring out how to build block structures based on your pattern. Eventually, you can also allow him to play freely with building structures.

Nesting Game
One and a half and above
Give your toddler nesting toys or toys of different sizes that can fit inside each other.  You can also use different size bowls, cups or toys that you create from cardboard boxes.  Play with your child by showing him that the toys can be fitted within each other.  Take the nested toys apart and encourage your child to nest the toys himself.   Start with few nesting objects, and gradually add more.

Nesting game teaches your toddler about size differences, and solving problems through logical reasoning.

Matching Game
Two to 2 and a half
Draw colorful shapes or animals in cards and make an exact pair of each drawing.  Start with 3 or 4 pairs.  Turn the cards over.  Open one card for your toddler.  Ask your toddler what the drawing is, and tell him  that you will be looking for the same drawing.  Open the rest of the cards one by one, and ask your toddler if it is the same one as the open card.  If he finds a pair, give it to him, then open another card and ask him to look for its pair.  Repeat until all cards are matched.

Thinking Skills

Each time a child is stimulated to think, either new neural pathways are formed or existing ones are strengthened.  Challenging activities in a loving environment create optimal learning experiences.

Play puzzles with your child.  Puzzles involve reasoning, discrimination, and muscle control, which all challenge the developing brain.

Paper Puzzle
For 2 and a half years and older.
Cut shapes made of colored paper, and make a board with have drawings that fit the shapes.   Make your child match the cut-up shapes with the ones on the board.

Another idea is to get large colorful and engaging pictures of a simple object from magazines.  Cut them in four and ask your child to  put the picture back together again.  To make the puzzle more challenging, you can cut the picture into more than 4 pieces, or in irregular shapes.  You can also mix-up cut-outs from 2 pictures.

Toddler solving puzzle

For 2 and a half years and older.
Collect pictures of things or draw pictures of things that are opposites such as big and small, hard and soft, up and down, inside and outside and so on.  Paste the pictures in cards.  Talk to your toddler about the concept of opposites.  Mix up the cards on the table.  Pick up a card and describe what it shows “This is something  big, where’s something that’s small?”

What’s Next?
2 Years  and Up
Reread a story book that you read before to your toddler.  Before turning the page, ask your toddler what she thinks, is going to happen next.   If she needs help, give her a hint as to what happens next.   If your child still cannot remember, just tell her “Let’s find out” and turn the page, then talk about what happens next.  

You can also read a new book and make your child guess what happens next in the story.

Concentration skills

Learning to pay attention and focusing attention to completing a task is a skill that is essential to other forms of learning.  Being able to concentrate is also necessary for problem solving.  

Remove the Tape
Stick long strips of paper tape on any flat surface like a table or a fridge door. Make the tape overlap each other.   Show your toddler how to remove the tapes one at a time with the use of the fingernail, and then let her do it herself.

Stacking Game
Play with blocks or any toy that stacks.  Challenge your toddler by stacking the toys as high as he can.

Toddler playing stacking game

Coin Pattern Game
2 years old and up
Gather a combination of coins – pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters.  Show your toddler a combination of four coins in a sequence, for example, two pennies and two dimes.  Make your toddler look at the coins.  Cover the coins and ask your toddler to make the same combination from memory, using the other coins from your collection.  Give your toddler a happy response when he gets the combination right, and gently correct him when he does not get it right until he masters his concentration skill.

Language and Communication

For optimum brain development, young children need a rich and responsive language environment.  The plasticity of the brain, its ability to rewire itself, is what makes it so easy for children to learn language. The more words young children hear, the more connections their brains make.  Children learn a language by hearing words over and over. That’s why the more you talk to your child, the better.  Talking to a young child increases the number of words that he will recognize and eventually understand.

Read picture books
For your toddler, choose books with clear picture of familiar objects.  For tips on how to read to your toddler, click here.

The most effective way for your toddler to acquire language skills is for you to read books to her.  Toddlers learn the rules of grammar by hearing you and others speak.

Mirror Game
With your toddler, watch your reflections in a large mirror.  Make faces on the mirror.  Point out her body parts such as nose, mouth, neck, etc.  Point out your body parts, calling them, for example, “mommy’s nose”, “mommy’s mouth” etc.  Ask her to point at her body parts, and mommy’s body parts.

This game teaches your toddler body awareness, see herself as separate from others, and be able to explore her identity with the use of language.

Talking With Your Toddler
Pick up one of your toddler’s toy and talk to him about it.  Use words repeatedly.  Add other cues to make your conversation interesting, such as doing actions (For example, “Oh look, a playful teddy bear.  Look at him jump… jump… jump” and while saying “jump”, you make the teddy bear move as if it is jumping, and so on), changing the tone and pitch of your voice, or making your toddler do something with the toy (“Hug the teddy bear.”  Show him how to hug the teddy bear, and take turns hugging the teddy bear).

Make a Book with Your Toddler’s Picture
Gather some of your toddler’s picture and paste them in pages of paper to make a book.  Arrange the pictures to make a story and paste the pictures on the pages.  The story does not have to be a narrative.  It can be told in a way that is like “A Day in the Live of…”  Read the book together with your toddler.  She will love the book that features him as the main character.

Toddler picture book

Imagination & Creativity

Nurturing your child’s creativity and imagination helps her develop her abstract thinking and problem-solving skills.  Your child’s ability to generate new thoughts and ideas is essential to a productive adult life.

Play With Sand
For one and a half years old and older.
Take your toddler to a place where he can play with sand, such as the beach, or a playground.  Bring toys or kitchen utensils that will help him form and sculpt the sound.  Show him how he can make designs such as wavy lines, circles, and others.  Show him also how to make simple sand sculptures such as a sand castle or tower using his toys.

This game enables your toddler to express himself creatively, and also develop his fine motor skills.

Toddler playing with sand

Crayon (or Paint) game
Tape a large poster board on hard, solid floor, or use sheets of regular paper taped together.  Give your toddler crayons or paint and show her how to draw.  Encourage your toddler to make her own drawings using different colors.

Toddler playing with paint

Get non-toxic modeling clay from a toy store.  Show your toddler how to make shapes like squares, triangles, rectangles and show him how they fit together.  To make the game more fun, advance to modeling recognizable 3d shapes like blocks, table, lollipop, and so on.

This game exercises your child’s imagination and the stimulation of actually creating something.

Toddler playing with clay

Reading A Story Book
Choose a story book appropriate for your toddler, one with a simple plot.  Read the book with him by using gestures and changing the tone of your voice depending on the situation in the story and which character is speaking.  

Reading books aloud to children stimulates their imaginations and expands their understanding of the world. It helps children develop language and listening skills and prepares them to understand written words.

For more, see Benefits of reading to your kids

Emotional Development

Hugging, kissing, coddling and making your toddler feel secure and being cared for helps develop her brain.  You are also making her grow to be socially well-adjusted.  The more nurtured, loved, cared for, and safe a child feels, the more firmly established his emotional well-being will be.  Your child’s earliest experiences with you, the parent, shape what is to become of her as an adult.   It is her early experience with you that she learns about how to feel and handle her feelings – and this affects her later behavior and thinking capabilities.

Sing and Cuddle
Carry and cuddle your toddler while singing and rocking him to the rhythm of the music.  Lovingly squeeze his hand, and establish eye contact, expressing your love for him.

Hide and Cuddle
Two and a half years and older
This is similar to hide and seek.  Hide in a place that is easy for your child to find you.  Call your child’s name so that he can follow your voice and find you.  When your child finds you, show him that he did well.  Scoop him up and rock him back and forth while laughing and kissing his face.

Toddler playing hide and seek

Toy Pets or Doll
Two and a half years and older
You need a doll or an animal toy for this.  Teach your child to nurture by playing pretend friends with her.  Show her how to take care of pretend pet or pretend baby by doing loving stuff such as feeding the toy, rocking it to sleep and talking to it.   You can combine this activity with singing, such as singing the toy with lullaby, which makes your child use musical skills, as well as language.

Toddler playing with teddy bear

Memory Skills

Memory is learning that sticks. When your child learns something, new synapses form or old synapses are strengthened, creating a memory of the experience or what the child learned.  Just like a muscle, the more memory is used in the early years,  the easier it will be for her to handle the load of information in school.

Animal Sounds
Show your toddler a book of animals that make sounds.  Point to an animal and make the sound the animal says.  For example, point to the cow and say, “Look at the cow.  The cow says moo!”  Then ask your toddler what the cow says.  “What does the cow say?”  Help him by repeating the animal sounds, until he makes the right sound.  You can show him the next couple of animals, and then go back to the cow, and see if he remembers the sound of the animals he has encountered so far.

Memory Boxes
Collect a few boxes and paste pictures of significant persons or objects (pictures of his dad, mom, dog, house, etc.)  in each of the boxes.  Cover the boxes with different colored paper, or otherwise make them unique.  Open the boxes and talk to your child about the picture pasted in each of the box.   Close the box and ask your child which box has the picture of each person or object.

This game exercises your child’s visual memory, while helping him build listening and language skills.

Picture Fun
For one and a half year old or older
From magazines, cut out pictures of objects that are not familiar but interesting to your toddler, such as airplane, a giraffe or a mountain.  Glue these on index cards.  Show the pictures to your toddler, telling him the name of the object and talking to him about the object.  Then, ask your toddler to look for a picture that you told him about.  For example, after talking about the giraffe, you can ask her “Where’s the giraffe?”

This game stimulates your child’s visual memory, as well as help her language development.

Math Skills

A young brain primed for math gives the child big benefits for his future.  Activities to boost his math skills change his brain to become skillful in problem solving.  Being skillful in math at an early age is also a stronger predictor of later school achievement than reading skills or the ability to pay attention.

Grouping Stuff Together
2 years old and up
Gather a collection of large buttons, colorful beads and things that are easy to sort into a table.   Show your toddler how to group things together by shape, color or size.  Let your child group the objects by himself.  After the stuff are sorted, count them one by one.

Introducing Math Shapes and Symbols
On a blank paper, draw shapes and numbers that your toddler can color.  After coloring the drawing, tell your toddler what she did, such as saying “You just colored the circle red”, etc.

Counting  And Rhyming
Sing with your child nursery rhymes that involves numbers such as “Five Little Ducks,” “Five Little Monkeys,” and “Ten Little Indians.”   While singing the rhyme with her, represent the numbers with objects such as toys or even just holding up your fingers as you count.  Repeat this game as long as she enjoys it.  Hearing the numbers again and again reinforces her math vocabulary.

See this link to find other activities for your toddler that makes math fun

Physical Development

Gross and fine motor skills, balance and eye-hand coordination are necessary for many tasks – from writing to athletic abilities.


When your toddler is involved in physical activity, he exercises many parts of the brain and enhances brain function through providing more oxygen to it.   Even small muscle exercises like finger plays stimulates brain growth.

Blowing Bubbles Game
12 month and Up
Let your toddler chase the bubbles that you make. Toddlers find bubbles fascinating, and chasing and popping them a lot of fun.   You can use a big wand, and then a small wand to make her see the difference between big and small bubbles.  

This game stimulates your child’s senses, and her body movement makes her exercise her gross motor skills.

Roll the Ball
12 month and up
Use a ball with the size that your toddler can carry with both hands.  Sit opposite each other, a couple of feet apart.  Gently roll the ball to your child and encourage her to roll the ball back to you.  As she gets better, increase the distance between you.  You can vary the game by gently bouncing the ball to her instead of rolling it.

This game teaches your child body awareness, gross motor skill and concentration.

Pillow Obstacle Course

12 month and up

Make an obstacle course made up of pillows and cushions, some stacked high and some stacked low.  Encourage your toddler to crawl or walk towards you by making her way through the pillow.  You can use pillows with different sizes, colors and textures.  Make the course more challenging by making her crawl under a soft furniture that has no sharp edges.  

This game help develop gross motor skills, body awareness and balance.

Balancing Game
2 years old and up
Create a balancing beam from a plank of wood, or go to a playground where you can find this.  Hold your child’s hand to help him walk across the beam.  Let your child walk across the beam if he feels confident that he can do it himself.

This game develops your child’s sense of balance and eye-foot coordination.

Sensory Development

Exposing your toddler to a variety of sensory stimuli – sights, sounds, taste, and touch boost your child’s brain growth in many ways.  Show your toddler colors, let him hear music and language, and give him stuff to smell, taste and touch.  Auditory discrimination prepares him to differentiate among letter sounds.  Learning to see differences among similar objects prepares him to recognize the alphabet.

A Trip To The Garden

For 2 years old and older.

Take your child to the garden.  Let him feel the various texture of leaves and other objects that you find in a garden like rocks, tree trunk and so on.  Let him also smell the flowers and other objects that has a strong odor.  Examine the sizes, shapes and colors of stuff in the garden.  Also, let your child look at the stuff in the soil. You may also bring a magnifying glass to make the little stuff more visible.   Be sure to describe what he is seeing, feeling and smelling.

Toddler gardening

I Spy

For 2 and a half years and older.
This will make your toddler think about the qualities of objects – their colors, shapes, sizes, and so on.  Begin by telling your toddler “I Spy with my little eye, something that is big”.  At first, help your toddler learn how to play the game by pointing at the big object.  Play more I Spy games until your toddler gets it.
This fun game does not only make your toddler think about objects around him, it also provides you an opportunity to teach your toddler new vocabulary words.

Touch Book
Gather pieces of cardboard and bind them together to make a book.  Glue pieces of objects that have different textures in them.  Label the objects with description of the texture.  For example, you can use a soft fabric and label it “SOFT”, a sandpaper and label it “ROUGH”, a gel and label it “GOOEY”, etc.  Other objects you can use include cotton balls, feathers, pieces of satin, etc.   See this Scholastic article for more ideas.  Read your Touch Book with your toddler and have fun.

Skills Development

When learning new skills, each move has to be repeated over and over to strengthen neural circuits.

Zip It Up, Snap It On

One and a half years and older.

Collect some clothing and objects with easy to fasten buttons, snaps, hooks, zippers, and so on.  Show your toddler how to work these objects to open and close.  Let your child do it himself.  Gently encourage him.  When he succeeds, praise him and hug him for his effort.

Social Skills

Early social and emotional experiences are the seeds of human intelligence.  The social and emotional skills a child develops will determine the quality of his relationships with people and engagement with the world throughout life.

Taking Turns

Taking turns is a game that that teaches your toddler the concept of sharing.  Give your child one of his favorite toys, and let him play with it.  After a while, ask your child if you can play with his toy.  When he gives you his toy, show him how happy and appreciative you are of his sharing his toy.  Play with his toy for a while.  Then give it back to him.  Let him play with his toy again, and so on.

Puppet Play

Two years or older

Play puppets with your child.  You can make these puppets out of toys, socks or paper bags where you draw a face on.  Make a story about the puppets.  Make sure that each puppet talks with a different voice.  Give your child one of the puppets, and encourage him to join the story.  Talk to your child’s puppet, and let his puppet converse with yours.  Ask his puppet, for example, about what he is doing, what is his favorite food, and so on.  

This game not only introduce him to social skills, but makes use of his imagination as well.

Toddler playing with puppet

Simple Chore Is Fun

Two and a half years or older
Get your child a small version of cleaning materials such as a feather duster, broom, rake, and so on.  When you are cleaning the house or cleaning the garden, tell your toddler to help you clean.  She will enthusiastically copy your motions.  Praise her when she makes an effort to help, and let her know that her help is appreciated. For advanced task, you can ask her to help you plant seed or water the plants in the garden, for example.
This can be the beginning of teaching her about chores and responsibility.    

Musical Skills

Many studies suggest that learning music has a lot of benefits to the growing brain including spatial-temporal reasoning (the ability to see part/whole relationships), promoting language acquisition, listening skills, memory and motor skills.  Musical experiences integrate different skills simultaneously, thereby developing multiple brain connections.  See benefits of music.

Singing and Clapping
Sing nursery rhymes to your toddler.  Use hand movements, gestures, and clapping of hands while singing to make the activity more fun and encourage her to move along.  
Simple nursery rhymes include Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Row your boat, Itsy Bitsy Spider, If You’re Happy and You Know It, and Wheels on the Bus, and others.

Head Shoulders Knees and Toes is a good song where you can point to the body parts while singing.  Also, make variations on lyrics of songs to include his body parts.  For example, you can sing “If you’re happy and you know it” with lyrics “If you’re happy and you know it, touch your nose”.

Singing nursery rhymes help develop language.

First instruments

Give your toddler safe noise-making items from the kitchen such as pans, metal lids, bowls, and wooden spoons.   Use also toys that make noise such as a toy drum or xylophone.  Teach your child to play his first “musical instrument” by rhythmically banging at the pans while singing a song or playing music on the CD.  Encourage him to play along.  Show him different ways to make sound like playing gently, loudly, slowly and fast.  Point out to him the difference.
For a kid one and a half years old and older, you can put pennies in a tightly-sealed plastic jar to make sounds when he shakes it.
This game teaches your child cause and effect, rhythm, and introduce him to making music which has a lot of brain-boosting benefits

Toddler playing with xylophone

Sing or Play Along

2 years and up
Get a CD or recording of popular songs or easy to listen instrumental music.  Sing together to the popular music with your toddler.  With instrumental music, get a toy musical instrument, and pretend that you are part of the performance by playing along.  For example, you can use a toy drum to go with the rhythm, a toy cymbal or a toy piano.

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