What to Teach a 1 Year Old: Fun Ways to Play and Learn

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I love one year olds! Between ages one and two, there are so many fun milestones! Your child might say their first words, take their first step, and really come into their personality. It’s truly spectacular to witness and be a part of!

It’s also a critical time for brain development! Did you know that the most crucial part of a child’s brain development is their experiences and their interaction with their environment? It’s even more important than their genes. Additionally, most of the brain’s connections between cells are formed in early childhood. So if you don’t think the first few years of life matter, check the facts! This is one of the most important periods of a person’s life when it comes to brain development!

What skills should a one-year-old be working on?

The following milestones should be taken with a grain of salt. As I mentioned above, in the first 3 years of life, a child grows and learns a lot. The various skills will come at different times for different children. Talk to your doctor if your child seems to be well behind in many of these areas or if you have concerns of any sort. Otherwise, keep playing and interacting with your child in a meaningful way to help them develop new skills.

These skills are something that most children can do by age 2. Thus, the perfect skills to target with your 1 year old.

Cognitive Skills

  • Using pretend play in various ways
  • Looking at picture books with an adult
  • Copying simple chores
  • Repeating an action in order to get the same effect
  • Exploring objects in a variety of ways: touching, mouthing, banging

Gross Motor Skills

  • Walking without holding on to anyone or anything
  • Climbing on and off a couch or chair without help
  • Running (may seem like a hurried walk)
  • Kicking and throwing a ball

Fine Motor Skills

  • Drinking from an open cup by themselves, with some spills
  • Using fingers to eat
  • Beginning to use a spoon to eat some foods
  • Scribbling on paper
  • Turning pages in a book (may be thick pages)

Receptive Language:

  • Following simple directions when paired with gestures
  • Following simple directions with only words
  • Getting something from another room when asked
  • Pointing to a few body parts when named

Expressive Language:

  • Naming a few common objects or pictures when asked
  • Learning about 1 new word per week between 18 and 24 months
  • Saying their first name
  • Beginning to put two words together in a phrase
Receptive vs. Expressive Language

Emotional and Social Skills

  • Pointing to interesting objects or events to show you
  • Bringing objects to show others
  • Pointing to objects or pictures so you can name them
  • Moving away from a caregiver, but looking back to ensure you are close by
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How do one year olds learn best?

I love “teaching” one year olds because it’s really just playing with them! A one year old learns best through experience and interaction. One of my favorite speech therapists says it this way:

“The role of the adult in early childhood education is to provide a variety of opportunities that allow the children to learn naturally through discovery and exploration…and then provide a little scaffolding along the way. We don’t direct the learning, we facilitate/guide/enhance/expand/support the learning as it naturally unfolds.”

Cari Ebert

Basically, the way toddlers and preschoolers learn is through play and new experiences. Subjecting your child to new places, tastes, smells, feelings, and activities will give them a strong foundation to navigate the world around them. Let them explore simple things like the feeling of grass underfoot, all the different colors seen in the grocery store, and what it feels like to splash the water. Try new things with your child, and they will learn!

Additionally, PLAY with your child! Be silly by playing peek-a-boo, tickle monster, and playing with their baby doll. You don’t have to be “good” at play (I’ve heard from many parents who are worried that they “don’t know how to play”), just get on the floor and interact with your child. Play doesn’t have to be complicated. Play is an attitude of joy and ease. It might take practice if you haven’t played for a while, but it will be well worth it.

I have to share one more quote that I love, and that really highlights the importance of play:

Play is a way to establish new connections; it primes the cortex for the development of the neural pathways that create our physical, social-emotional, and cognitive capabilities. So, the more often children are in a play state, the more new brain circuits form and build their skills. Playing literally wires the brain for the skills we use our whole lifetime — physical agility, social confidence, emotional regulation,  creativity, and resilience.  As adults, time spent in a play state increases our resilience — it activates neural pathways in the brain that mitigate the effects of stress.

National Institute of Play

All that to say, you do NOT need to “school” your one year old. Skip the flashcards, and have fun with your child.

Activities to Teach Your 1 Year Old

Now that you know that younger children learn best through play, let’s get into some specifics. Some of these fun activities are super simple and will require no prep and very little effort. Other ideas will be a little more involved, but the good news is, your work will not be wasted!

Under each activity, I will note what skills are being targeted, as well as a description of the activity.

Singing Classic Songs

Target Skill: receptive and expressive language, cognition, and motor skills.

Activity: Singing to your children is just the best! There are so many benefits to singing and it’s quite simple! Singing can be used to calm and soothe your child, to learn new words, or to socially interact with your child and others.

Why You Should Sing with Your Toddler

Here’s a quick list of some of my favorite songs for a young toddler (although older children will enjoy them, too!).

  • Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes
  • 5 Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed
  • Old McDonald
  • Wheels on the Bus
  • This Little Light of Mine
  • Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
  • Row, Row, Row Your Boat
  • ABCs
  • Itsy Bitsy Spider

If you aren’t the singing type, that’s okay, you’ve got options! Your first option is to grin and bear it! Sing even if you are terrible because your child will not know the difference! Your other option is to utilize the internet and play some music for you and your little one to sing along to. (At this age, I suggest skipping the screen time, as the CDC recommends not doing screen time until the age of 2.)

Making Up Your Own Song

Target Skill: receptive and expressive language, cognition, and motor skills.

Activity: If you are brave (or silly, or creative, or both!) then you can make up your own songs! We make up our own songs ALL THE TIME at my house! These personalized songs can help with lots of things.

I have made up songs for driving in the car (it’s a great way to console sad passengers). We have a few songs about our whole family, and we even made up our own version of the “Favorite Things” song from the Sound of Music. We have a song for washing hands and for bathtime (where we work on body parts and not crying). We also have a song for teeth brushing, which has been a game changer for my kiddos who hate to brush!

Related Article: How to Help When Your Toddler Won't Brush Teeth

Making up songs can be really fun and silly, but also helpful in various situations. One of the best things about me making up songs in our family is that now my older kids have started to make up their own songs, and it’s the sweetest thing!

Go to the Park

Target Skill: physical development (gross motor skills), social skills

Activity: Going to the park is a great way for your child to explore new things. They can try out the slide, go for a swing, and maybe interact with other kids while they are there. At this age, children are beginning to climb onto small things, and the park is a safe place to let your child test their skills.

Head to the Grocery Store

Target Skill: vocabulary building, early numeracy skills, cognition

Activity: Do you know how much your child can learn at the grocery store? You have to go to the grocery store anwya, so you may as well make it fun and engaging for your child.

Talk about the different colors of the food items, count the number of items you get as you put them in the cart, and discuss how each thing feels. Talking as you go through the store is a simple and fun way to help your child learn a bunch of new things.

Take a Bath (Colorful, Bubbly, or BOTH!)

Target Skill: sensory development, vocabulary

Activity: Bath time is necessary, so you might as well make it a good time! Try mixing up bath time by adding in bubbles (I just use our dish soap), or if you are feeling adventurous, add in some food coloring. Your one year old will love this, and any older siblings that share bathtime will dig it, too! (I have done it in my bathtub multiple times and it never leaves a stain on my kids or the tub, but I can’t speak for all bathtubs, so maybe test out a small bit first.)

As your child bathes, talk about body parts and introduce other vocab that has to do with the toys you use. Your bath toys don’t have to be fancy either,! At our house we use a variety of household items and my kids love it! We put in various cups, spoons, plastic animals, and various sizes of containers.

Sensory Bin

Target Skill: hand-eye coordination, language, sensory exploration

Activity: Sensory activities can start at a young age, even as early as one! An important part of your toddler’s development is exploring new materials and things. A sensory bin is an excellent way to let your child experience a wide variety of textures in a fun, easy way.

All you need to do is gather the materials. You’ll want some sort of bin-I like to use a plastic storage container with a lid. Then you need the “filler” which could be cereal (Cheerios, Chex, Fruit Loops, etc.), rice, cotton balls, uncooked noodles, or something else you think of. Then you can add in little toys and tools. I love to include cups, spoons, and little figurines. Just be sure to avoid small items that may be a choking hazard.

Sensory bins are all the rage these days, so if you are wanting more suggestions poke around the internet a bit more. You will find tons of great ideas!


Target Skill: fine motor skills, creativity, hand-eye coordination, language

Activity: Get out those crayons and some paper and let your child go wild! At age one, they will just be figuring out how to draw, but this is an important step in pre-writing. It’s a good idea to color alongside your child, so they can have a model of what they are supposed to do.

You can also work on your child’s knowledge of color words as you create together. They won’t pick it up right away, but with repetition, your child will start to understand colors.

Related Article: The Best Crayons for Toddlers 

Dance Party

Target Skill: gross motor skills, creativity

Activity: Music is magical (cheesy, but true!). Put on some good tunes and dance your heart out, encouraging your little one to join in. If you have big kids in your house, they might want to join in the fun, too!


Target Skill: language (both receptive and expressive), cognition, fine motor skills

Activity: Reading to your child starting in their first year of life has so many benefits it’s wild! It is the best way to introduce your child to new concepts and ideas. It’s also really easy, you just need some reading material!

Some of my favorite books for this age have simple words and bright pictures. You can also include books that have fun textures (like these) or moving parts (like this one). The interactive books will help children stay more engaged as you read to them.

Snack Happy

Target Skill: fine motor skills, nutrition, sensory play

Activity: Experiment with different textures of foods and let them play with whatever you serve them. I know this might be hard for you, but playing with their food may actually help them be less picky as they grow. Letting them feed themselves is also a way to help them work on their pincer grasp (holding something between their thumb and first finger).

Tunnel Time

Target Skill: gross motor skills

Activity: Use cardboard boxes (big diaper boxes are PERFECT) and make them into tunnels! Just open up the top and bottom of the boxes and tape them so the flaps stay open. Encourage your child to crawl through by putting them on one side of the box and going around to the other side so they can see you through the box.

Go to the Zoo/Animal Shelter/Pet Store

Target Skill: language, social/emotional skills

Activity: Exploring new things is one of your child’s most important ways to learn. Go explore your local zoo or animal shelter and let your child see (or pet) the animals. Being around animals can also help your child regulate emotions and learn empathy.

Play in the Mud, Snow, and Rain

Target Skill: sensory play, vocabulary

Activity: Let your child explore the elements. You can do this by simply going outside and letting them explore, or you can bring the materials inside.

I have made both a snow and a mud sensory bin, and my kids loved them both!

Bake Together

Target Skill: pre-math skills, vocabulary, independence, fine motor skills

Activity: I know that baking with a one year old may sound crazy (it kind of is!) but it can be really fun! Just accept that it will be messy and imperfect! But you can work on counting, sorting, and tons of vocabulary! You can even work on some fine motor skills, like stirring and dumping.

I would suggest doing this with an older one year old, a bit closer to their second birthday because it will be chaotic no matter what, buy maybe less so if they are almost 2.

Here I have an entire article about how to successfully bake with your toddler.

Hide and Seek

Target Skill: problem-solving skills, social skills

Activity: Young children will probably need a little help playing hide and seek, but the concept is the same. If it’s just you, then change the game in some simple ways, and give your child some clues. Let them see where you hide, and call their name or be extra noisy so they can find you. They might not find you on their first try, but give them clues and eventually, your child will find you.

If you’ve got an older sibling or another adult, let your one year old have a “partner” that can help them play the game.

Nursery Rhymes

Target Skill: vocabulary, pre-literacy skills

Activity: Nursery rhymes are great because they can teach your child new words and they have rhyming words. Learning about rhyming is foundational to pre-reading skills and your child will have so much fun learning the new little rhymes.

Classic Nursery Rhymes

  • I’m a Little Teapot
  • Little Bo Peep
  • Pat A Cake
  • Hickory Dickory Dock
  • Little Miss Tuffet
  • Hey Diddle Diddle
  • Mary Had a Little Lamb
  • Three Blind Mice
  • Jack and Jill
  • Humpty Dumpty

Put It In, Dump It Out, REPEAT

Target Skill: fine motor skills, cognitive skills

Activity: If this is your first child, then you may not know that toddlers LOVE to dump toys (or coins, or crayons, or whatever they can get their hands on). If you’re lucky, then your little one likes to put things away, too. And they often like to do this on repeat. This may seem silly, but it’s actually good for their fine motor skills.

It’s also a good skill because at this age one of the cognitive skills they are working on is cause and effect. Dumping objects out and putting them back in is a simple cause and effect game. So let them have at it! Give them a few kinds of containers and some things they can put in and dump out. (You can give them a bowl with cotton balls in it, an old oat meal container with blocks, or whatever else you can think of!)

Toys to Teach Your One Year Old

Finger Paint

Finger pain might not sound like a great idea for a one-year-old, but you just have to prepare. I always put my kiddos in paint shirts (one of my old, ratty shirts that I cut down the back and then tie around my child), and I have a little mat (I like this one) that goes under their table where they are painting. My kids have this amazing table that is plastic, making cleaning up nice and easy.

Finger painting is fun for little hands as they get to create and feel the fun texture of the paint. If you are feeling inspired, join in the fun!

Shape Sorter

Shape sorters are one of the best things to help your little one learn problem-solving in a fun, interactive way. I specifically love this style of shape sorter, because there are different levels of difficulty. Some of the shapes have specific holes for them, but the other sides offer an easier way to get the shapes in that still requires some problem-solving.

Great Books for Toddlers

The following is a short list of the best sellers for one year olds on Amazon. These books are wonderful because of how engaging they can be. I love the number one best choice “Poke a Dot” series because your child gets to work on their fine motor skills, animal sounds, and reading. It’s a great combination!

Ring Stack

Ring stacks are one of my favorite toys for this age. They are great for cognition and they are so much fun! The one below is a big hit in our house because you can work on common words while you play (like the different colors of each ring and how they feel).

Water Table

Water tables are a great sensory experience, and they are perfect for some independent play. Your child can learn about simple cause and effect as they dump, pour, and stir the water. It’s one of my favorite outdoor activities for toddlers and even preschoolers!

Baby Doll

One of the sweetest things is how much babies and toddlers love other babies and toddlers. Watching a one year old play with a baby doll is utterly sweet and it’s great for developing empathy in your toddler. They try to “take care” of the baby and help the baby.


Blocks are an absolutely classic toy, and it’s for good reason! These beautiful, squishy blocks will help your child work on their fine motor skills while they stack them up tall. You can also work on some vocabulary like colors and numbers. Your little one will love building and knocking down these fun blocks.

Chunky Puzzles

Puzzles might seem too complex for a one year old, but these simple, chunky puzzles are a great toy, even at a young age. Your child can work on fine motor skills and vocabulary as you label each puzzle piece.


Play scarves are a simple, fun way for your child to play. The simplicity of the toy leaves endless opportunities for your little one. Scarves can be used for dressing up, pretend play (a magic carpet, a plate, or whatever your one-year-old dreams up), or dancing to music. On top of that, I love that this set of scarves comes with a box, so your child can practice their fine motor skills, color words, and problem-solving.

Music Makers

As mentioned above, singing with toddlers is just the best! There are so many benefits, including vocabulary building. These cute instruments will allow for some great fine motor work and cause-and-effect practice. Plus, it’s just darn cute watching your child sing and dance!

Busy Board

Busy Boards are all the rage these days! They are great for fine motor skills, problem-solving, and independent play. This particular busy board even has a page for your child to work on their alphabet. (It’s never too early to get your kids playing with letters. Plus, this toy grows with your child!)

After reading through all of those wonderful ideas, I hope you are feeling ready to go play with your one-year-old. When you “play on purpose” your child can learn a lot on the way!

Drop a comment below about your favorite activity from the article or one of your own favorites that I didn’t mention!

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