Play interactions vary depending on the child’s temperament, family environment, and play styles of both children and adults. Because a high percentage of infants and toddlers are placed in caregiving settings during the day, caregivers play a major role in adult–child play. It is noted how cultural differences affect how parents play with their babies. In this article, we consider how mothers and fathers play differently with their very young children. Then we discuss caregiver roles in infant-toddler play in child-care settings.

Parenting styles are changing. Until recent decades, research on parent–infant interactions were almost exclusively focused on the mother as the play partner. However, with the advent of working mothers and the evolution of different roles for both parents, fathers are taking increasingly important roles in the care and nurture of their children. Research into this phenomenon has revealed that mothers and fathers play differently with infant and toddlers.

In spite of the fact that more mothers are working, they still tend to take the major responsibility for caregiving. Although fathers help in the evenings and on weekends, mothers still have the major responsibility for caring for the child (Thompson & Walker, 1989).

Although fathers might provide less of the care of babies, they do play with infants. In the first months of life, fathers might move the infant’s arms and legs, zoom her through the air, or tickle her stomach. From the very beginning fathers play more physically and more noisily with their infant.

Mothers, in contrast, are more likely to blend play activities with caregiving routines. They talk or sing to the infant in a soothing manner (Parke & Tinsley, 1981). Their play is more verbal and instructive.

When parents play with toddlers, differences in play activities persist. Mothers help their toddlers play with toys, read to them, or play traditional games such as patty-cake and peek-a-boo. Fathers engage in increasing amounts of physical play. They play chase and crawling games or wrestle with them. As a result, some researchers have found that toddlers are more responsive to their fathers than to their mothers (Clarke-Stewart, 1978).

Caregivers in child-care settings have a different type of support role for infant-toddler play. Because they are responsible for the care of a group of infants or toddlers, their play interactions are more likely to be brief. They interact with infants while other babies in their care are asleep. They might engage in talking with infants while they are changing them or while alternately feeding two or more infants.

Caregivers also have a more structured environment for infants and toddlers. They provide cognitive stimulation by providing toys that are appropriate for developmental levels. Like parents, they talk to the children about their play and encourage them to try new toys. Toddlers spend 50% of their time interacting with a caregiver in a child-care setting, 23% in social play, and 23% in object play (Howes, Unger, & Seidner, 1989).

Social play is enhanced in group care. Toddlers have a group of potential playmates and an environment that encourages play both indoors and outdoors. Caregivers can assist toddlers in playing in the group setting and introduce opportunities for social interactions as they engage in a variety of play activities. Peer interactions can also take negative forms such as aggressive encounters or running that is out of control (Howes et al., 1989).