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

What does play look like in two-year-olds, and how can caregivers support their inborn curiosity and creativity?

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 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 two-year-olds and how caregivers can support it.

Expressing Individuality in Play

What children are doing:
Self-directed play is a great place for two-year-olds (twos) to express their individuality and be in charge. They have opinions and preferences (even if they change frequently) and want to make choices. On the other hand, too many choices can be overwhelming. As their attention span increases, twos can become absorbed in play for increasingly longer periods of time, especially when they are fully in charge and the materials are interesting.

What caregivers can provide:

  • Toys and materials that twos can use in a wide variety of ways.
  • Variety among pretend play props: several kinds of hats, pretend food, purses, etc.
  • Sets of toys with variety among the pieces: sets of animals or people figurines; table blocks with different colors and shapes; sets of stuffed animals and puppets; several types of tools to use in the sand table/box.

What caregivers can say and do:

  • Give two-year-olds manageable choices: make a limited number of activities available but make sure that each activity allows children to make choices within that activity.
  • Start with few options when introducing a new material or activity, and then, as the children gain familiarity with it, add more pieces, props, or choices to extend their play.

Connecting to One Another in Play

What children are doing:
As toddlers get older, they become more interested in talking to and playing with other children. But it can still be a tug-of-war between cooperating with each other in play and competing with each other for toys or materials. Conflicts gradually lessen as twos practice their communication and problem-solving skills. The more skilled they become, the more fun they have with each other, which in turn motivates them to become even more skilled.

What caregivers can provide:
Toys, activities, and equipment that encourage social interactions while still allowing children to have some individual control or ownership.

  • A sand/water table big enough for 3-4 children to comfortably play, and plenty of tools for all.
  • A pretend play area with several types of props so that 2-4 children can each be doing a different activity while in the same space.
  • Side-by-side easels for children to draw or paint on; a long length of butcher paper that allows several children to independently draw/paint while still having the opportunity to interact with each other.

What caregivers can say and do:

  • Observe or play alongside children, commenting on what each is doing in order to help them notice one another and connect in positive ways (“I see you’re making cookies with your play dough, Emma. It looks like Jamal is making a cake. Yummy!”).
  • Model, rather than force, the next step for children, from playing next to each other (parallel play) to playing with each other (cooperative play) (“May I have a taste of your cake, Jamal? I made a cup with my play dough. Would you like a drink of my juice?”).

Imitating in Play

What children are doing:
Although two-year-olds started imitating adult actions in play when they were younger, now they really get into pretending! They not only imitate Mommy and Daddy, they love to pretend to be dogs and cats, too. Their pretending isn’t usually very elaborate or long lasting, but it’s very enjoyable and engaging for them and it’s a great context in which to practice language skills, social skills, and problem-solving.

What caregivers can provide:

  • Props that encourage twos to imitate familiar roles or activities.
  • Puppets: Adults may have to model how to pretend that a puppet is talking, eating, or doing other simple actions, but once they’ve seen puppets used they will begin to experiment on their own.

What caregivers can say and do:

  • Add new props to children’s pretend play and watch how they change and extend their stories and roles as a result (bandages in the housekeeping area; washcloths and soapy water with the dolls; hard hats and toy tools on the playground).
  • Add animal, people, or vehicle toys to the block area to encourage building structures for pretend play.

Stretching Their Physical Limits in Play

What children are doing: 

Part of two-year-olds’ developing sense of self is testing their physical abilities and expending lots of energy while doing so. They seem to find enjoyment simply in the ability to move! At the same time that they are growing in strength and coordination of the large muscles of their bodies, they are also developing greater control of the smaller movements of their fingers and hands. That means that they want to try many more tasks that involve those muscles: opening and closing lids, operating different fasteners, using keys, pushing buttons, etc. Unfortunately, they can get frustrated fairly quickly when they aren’t successful.


What caregivers can provide:

  • Indoor and outdoor equipment that allows twos to use their whole bodies to climb, jump, crawl, kick, pull/push, etc. (keeping in mind safety regulations and recommendations, of course).
  • Add toys, pretend play props, and tools that encourage twos to practice their fine motor control (discarded keyboards, phones, or small appliances for pretend play; cookie cutters, birthday candles and plastic knives with play dough; pretend play clothing with large buttons, zippers, or snaps).

What caregivers can say and do:

  • Scaffold twos’ attempts to accomplish goals that use either their fine motor skills or their large motor skills. In other words, be watchful but don’t step in until they clearly need assistance, and then give just enough assistance and encouragement to help them succeed, without doing too much for them.
  • Twos love showing adults what they can do physically! Be responsive – a little attention and acknowledgment of their effort usually is enough to satisfy them.

Playing with Music

What children are doing:
When music is incorporated into the daily lives of two-year-olds, it has the potential to enhance learning, moving, pretending, and getting along. Responding to and creating music provides another context in which they can develop preferences, make choices, and express their individuality. But it’s also an activity in which they can do something fun together, which helps to strengthen their sense of belonging to a group. More than ever, twos are able to imitate musical singing, imitating rhythms, pretending to play an instrument or perform with a microphone. They not only remember melodies and words (sometimes getting the words hilariously wrong), but they are also starting to experiment with creating their own melodies and rhythms. And of course they love music that they can dance and move to – it can be just the thing for active twos’ bodies when they can’t go outside or must wait for the next scheduled activity.

What caregivers can provide:

  • Children’s music with actions!
  • A music collection that includes both vocal and instrumental music representing a wide variety of musical styles, tempos, and moods.
  • Simple rhythm instruments, keyboard, xylophone, and/or other instruments that allow twos to explore tones and rhythms they create themselves.

What caregivers can say and do:

  • Draw children’s attention to changes or differences in tones or rhythms they hear or make.
  • Collect some favorite songs (preferably with actions) to use with children during transitions, times of waiting, etc.
  • Express enjoyment of music! Join children in singing and dancing. Talk about music that adults like; talk about how it makes people feel. Play and experiment with instruments along with the children.

Keep in mind

Play is the most motivating context for children to develop social understanding and communication skills. Play is enjoyable, so children try harder to work out conflicts and misunderstandings that threaten that enjoyment. But two-year-olds are early in their understanding of how to communicate, negotiate, and compromise. They still seem genuinely puzzled when their use of brute force or yelling doesn’t have a positive effect! Play is the context where caregivers can find the best, most frequent opportunities to give them better tools and skills to try. But if adults aren’t paying attention to children’s play until emotions have erupted, they have missed the opportunity. The best time to coach young children is when they’ve gotten stuck in their play but aren’t yet in emotional overload, and that requires caregivers to be observant during play.



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

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