Nurturing Learning in One-Year-Olds: Play and Music

Play is the central activity of young children and is the main way that young children explore, interact with, and enjoy the world around them, whether it’s an infant playing with her toes or a five-year-old playing superhero.

Topic: Play and Music


Play is the central activity of young children. Whether it’s an infant playing with her toes or a five-year-old playing superhero, play is the main way that young children explore, interact with, and enjoy the world around them. Play is any self-directed, pleasurable, internally motivated activity that children control. It’s where their inborn curiosity and creativity shine and where they can practice problem-solving and persistence. In this Nurturing Learning, we’ll look at what that play looks like in one-year-olds and how caregivers can support it.

Exploring Through Play

What children are doing:
Much of the play of one-year-olds (ones) involves exploring things around them using their senses. They are drawn to toys and materials that they can manipulate – that they can do different things to or that respond in different ways. Ones are learning about can I do with this…” and “What happens if I….”

What caregivers can provide:

  • Toys that are open-ended, that ones can easily use in different ways.
  • Toys that respond in different ways to curious ones’ actions.

What caregivers can say and do:

  • Give ones time and space where they can explore and experiment with toys and materials on their own.
  • Follow ones’ lead when they invite you to play with them. Don’t be too quick to show them what to do or help them. Play is self-motivating and is the best context for young children to practice making decisions and overcoming barriers.

Using Their Bodies in Active Play

What children are doing:
One-year-olds not only use their senses to explore through play, they also use their whole bodies. As they gain more and more physical strength and coordination, playing includes climbing, running, pulling, pushing, and even dancing! A big part of playing for ones is enjoying all the different ways their bodies can move and the different things they can do with their bodies.

What caregivers can provide:

  • LOTS of time and space for active play.
  • Toys and equipment, both indoors and out, that allow them to use their whole bodies in different ways and to independently practice new physical skills.

What caregivers can say and do:

  • Encourage ones to test out the different things they can do with their bodies. Let them experiment with a bit of risk and challenge; be available to step in but only when they are clearly getting frustrated or are in true danger of hurting themselves.
  • Minimize the amount of time that ones are physically limited (in strollers, walkers, highchairs/ booster seats, playpens, car seats, or being carried by an adult). They need their whole range of motion to develop strength, balance, and coordination.

Imitating in Play

What children are doing:
One-year-olds can be spotted imitating many of the everyday actions they see adults do, from drinking a cup of coffee to talking on the phone to kissing an imaginary “boo-boo.” This is the first hint of pretend play, which will get more and more elaborate through the early childhood years.

What caregivers can provide:

  • Baby dolls and stuffed animals.
  • Toy dishes, food, and other common kitchen items.
  • Common household items, or toy versions (toy broom, shovel, mirror, comb, hats/scarves, etc.).

What caregivers can say and do:

  • Encourage imitation-based play by commenting  on it and extending it (“Is the baby sleepy? Night-night, baby. Does she need a blanket?”).
  • Don’t expect ones to engage in pretend play with one another – that kind of coordinated play needs social and communication skills that ones haven’t yet developed. At this age, they can most often be seen playing completely independently or playing next to another child but not with him/her. In fact, ones may try to take each other’s toys, so be sure and have enough on hand that you can keep competition to a minimum.

Responding to Music

What children are doing:
Adults don’t usually think of music in relationship to play, but one thing they have in common is that both are very interesting and enjoyable to even the youngest children. Science has shown that babies are born with sensitivity to the basic elements of music and process it in the brain in a similar, though much simpler, manner as adults. By the time they reach their first birthday, babies recognize familiar songs and have developed a preference for the kinds of melodies and tempos surrounding them. From the start, babies respond to music by moving, and now, as they learn to stand and walk, they wiggle, stomp, twirl, and dance!

What caregivers can provide:

  • Music with a variety of levels of energy – ones get excited by fast, lively music and can be calmed by slower, more soothing music.
  • Favorite children’s songs that are simple, repetitive, and fun (and that caregivers don’t mind hearing over and over).

What caregivers can say and do:

  • Don’t feel limited to children’s music; adult music (classical, new age, pop, Latin, etc.) can be just as enjoyable to children and gives them early exposure to a wide range of music styles. When choosing music to play for children, think about the impact that recorded music is likely to have on them, think about how it makes adults feel, and then notice the reactions of each child as they hear it.
  • Don’t play music in the background – use it intentionally as a primary activity to connect to children and provide enjoyment. In the background, music only serves to increase the general noise level of the environment, which can be annoying or even intolerable for some children with lower thresholds for sensory input.
  • Don’t limit music to music time. Incorporate singing into interactions with children – sing during routines and transitions, and sing finger play and action songs when interacting with individual children during playtime.

Keep in mind

Play is the perfect context for children’s learning because it connects body, mind, and emotion in young children. It’s satisfying and enjoyable, it’s physically active, and it’s mentally engaging. Watch children as they play and ask: What concepts is he trying to understand? What skills is she practicing? What is so interesting about that toy, material, or activity? Assume that children’s play has meaning and purpose, then be curious enough to discover what that meaning and purpose is!


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Nurturing Learning in One-Year-Olds: Play and Music


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