There comes a moment in a toddler’s life when there’s really nothing quite as fascinating as a wheel.
The wheels on their buggy, on the family car and even on the suitcase they used as a ride-on during their summer holiday.
At a glance
- It can improve a child’s ‘gross motor skills’
- the big physical movements like reaching, bending, pushing, pulling, as well as balance and co-ordination
- Vehicle play helps them get to grips with important new concepts: go and stop; fast and slow; up and down; left and right
It’s the perfect moment to introduce play with cars, dump trucks and other vehicles. Not that they’ll probably need much encouragement: boys, particularly, seem drawn to anything with wheels even before their first birthday (research with male monkeys showed even they preferred wheeled toys to dolls). But girls may benefit from some gentle encouragement as there are loads of educational benefits, as well as fun, to be gained from vehicle play.
It can improve a child’s ‘gross motor skills’ – these are the big physical movements like reaching, bending, pushing, pulling, as well as balance and co-ordination. Ride-on toys can give them valuable practice here: getting on requires balancing on one leg while swinging the other one over; moving forward - and stopping when a skirting board comes into view - requires muscle strength and forward planning.
What toys to buy
Pushing smaller vehicles around the floor will provide training in many of those skills, plus what experts call ‘fine motor skills’, the smaller, finer physical movements and dexterity that are essential for writing later on. Your 12-month-old will probably have just about mastered the ‘pincer grip’, and brmming cars around the floor will help them perfect it. If their toy vehicles have levers, opening doors or windows or other age appropriate moving parts, then even better. The more ways there are to play with the toy, the more skills they can learn; take a look at Megabloks’ Cat or John Deere range. The Cat dump truck, for example, has a huge rear bin the child can fill with blocks – then tilt it up to send them tumbling out.
But it’s not just physical benefits they’re getting. Vehicle play helps them get to grips with important new concepts: go and stop; fast and slow; up and down; left and right. And it gives their imagination the space to soar because they can mimic what they’ve seen you do in the real world: drive along, stop at the traffic lights and get stuck in a traffic jam. That’s why it’s better to have sturdy, simple vehicles without lights, sounds or motors: the more the child has to imagine and create themselves, the better.
Amazingly, vehicle play also seems to improve language skills. In an intriguing experiment, researchers gave toy building blocks and cars to one group of toddlers aged 1.5-2.5, plus guidance to parents on how to encourage play. The other group weren’t given any blocks or guidance. Six months later all the children were tested – and the toddlers given the cars and blocks had better language skills. The scientists speculated that perhaps the play had given parents more opportunity to talk to their children (which is the most effective way to encourage speech) or maybe it was the play itself that helped children develop the skills needed for language, such as the ability to plan and to recognise cause and effect. Whatever the reason, it’s a great idea to keep their cars near the blocks to give them maximum options for creative play.
As they get to aged two and beyond, you’ll probably find they go through a phase of endlessly lining up their cars – sometimes by type (trucks in one line, cars in another), then perhaps by colour or role. This is their way of recognising the order of the world around them and mimicking it through play.
As parents we can help extend their play in simple ways. You could draw some roads on a huge piece of cardboard or an old sheet – or even with chalk on a patio or driveway – to provide a ‘world’ for their cars (they can use their blocks for houses and shops). Put vehicles in the sandpit (complete with hills to climb or a building site for the construction trucks), or create a ‘sensory’ tray by filling a baking tray or seed tray with uncooked pasta, rice or sand and see if the cars can drive through. Some children – particularly girls – will prefer vehicle play if there’s a figurine included so they can act out a scene.
Whatever their favourite activity, vehicle play is a fantastic gateway to learning.
You can also see more about your toddler's development with our milestones chart.