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Toddlers: Learning by Playing

Encouraging Toddler Activity

It might look like just child's play, but toddlers are hard at work learning important physical skills as they gain muscle control, balance, and coordination. Each new skill lets them move to the next one, helping them master more complicated physical tasks, such as jumping rope, kicking a ball on the run, or turning a cartwheel.

Toddlers always want to do more, which can motivate them to keep trying until they've learned a new skill, no matter what it takes.

Take advantage of your toddler's natural desire to keep moving. Even at this early age, kids set patterns of activity that carry through the rest of childhood. So an active toddler is likely to stay active later.

Developing Skills

Playing and learning are completely natural for toddlers, so mastering physical skills should be fun and games for them. Parents should give toddlers many chances to practice their developing skills while supervising so they stay safe as they learn.

Toddlers are developing in other ways too. Provide opportunities for yours to explore, ask questions, use their imagination, and practice fine motor skills, such as stacking blocks or coloring.

Here's a guide to the physical skills toddlers are working on, by age:

Early Toddler Skills (12–24 months)

  • walks independently
  • pulls/carries toys while walking
  • stoops and gets back up
  • begins to run
  • kicks a ball
  • holds railing going up/down stairs
  • walks backward

Older Toddler Skills (24–36 months)

  • balances 1 to 2 seconds on one foot
  • climbs well
  • bends over easily without falling
  • runs well
  • kicks ball forward
  • puts both feet on step going up/down stairs
  • starts to pedal tricycle
  • throws ball over head

How Much Activity Is Enough?

For children 12–36 months old, current National Association for Sports and Physical Education (NASPE) guidelines recommend this much daily activity:

  • at least 30 minutes of structured physical activity (adult-led)
  • at least 60 minutes unstructured physical activity (free play)

As a general rule, toddlers shouldn't be inactive for more than 1 hour at a time, except for sleeping. That's a lot of work for parents and caregivers, but a lot of much-needed activity for toddlers.

Encourage your toddler to be active, and remember how much they're learning along the way.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: October 2020