Play is more than just fun for babies and children. It’s how they learn best, and how they work out who they are, how the world works and where they fit into it.
The importance of play
Playing is one of the most important things you can do with your child, because play is essential for your child’s brain development. The time you spend playing together gives your child lots of different ways and times to learn.
Play also helps your child:
feel loved, happy and safe
develop social skills, language and communication
learn about caring for others and the environment
develop physical skills.
Your child will love playing with you, but sometimes she might prefer to play by herself and won’t need so much hands-on play from you. She might just want you to give her ideas and let her know how her play and games are going.
Different types of play
Unstructured, free play is the best type of play for young children.
This is play that just happens, depending on what takes your child’s interest at the time. Free play isn’t planned and lets your child use his imagination and move at his own pace.
Examples of unstructured play might be:
creative play alone or with others, including artistic or musical games
imaginative games – for example, making playhouses with boxes or blankets, dressing up or playing make-believe
exploring new or favourite play spaces like cupboards, backyards, parks, playgrounds and so on.
You can be part of your child’s unstructured play – or not. Sometimes all you’ll need to do is point her in the right direction – towards the jumble of dress-ups and toys on her floor, or to the table with crayons and paper. Sometimes you might need to be a bit more active. For example, ‘How about we play dress-ups? What do you want to be today?’.
Structured play is different. It’s more organised and happens at a fixed time or in a set space, and is often led by a grown-up.
Examples of structured play include:
water familiarisation classes for toddlers, or swimming lessons for older children – you might see these as important lessons for your child, but he might just think they’re fun
storytelling groups for toddlers and preschoolers at the library
dance, music or drama classes for children of all ages
family board or card games.
Structured and unstructured play can happen indoors or outdoors. Outdoor play gives your child the chance to explore, be active, test physical limits – and get messy!
How play develops with your child
As your child grows, the way she plays will change – she’ll get more creative and experiment more with toys, games and ideas. This might mean she needs more space and time to play.
Also, children move through different forms of play as they grow. This includes playing alone, playing alongside other children and interactive play with other children.
Newborns and babies
For babies, the best toy is you. Just looking at your face and hearing your voice is play for your new baby, especially if you’re smiling.
You might like to try the following play ideas and activities with your little one:
Music, songs, gentle tapping on your baby’s tummy while you sing, bells or containers filled with different objects: these activities can help develop hearing and movement.
Objects of different sizes, colours and shapes can encourage your child to reach and grasp.
Sturdy furniture, balls, toys or boxes can get your child crawling, standing and walking.
Regular tummy time and floor play are very important for your baby’s development. Tummy time helps your baby develop movement control by strengthening head, neck and body muscles. It also allows your baby to see and experience the world from a different perspective.
Here are some ideas your toddler might enjoy:
Big and light things like cardboard boxes, buckets or blow-up balls can encourage your child to run, build, push or drag.
Chalk, rope, music or containers can encourage jumping, kicking, stomping, stepping and running.
Hoops, boxes, large rocks or pillows are good for climbing on, balancing, twisting, swaying or rolling.
Hills, tunnels or nooks can encourage physical activities like crawling and exploring.
If you put on some favourite music while your toddler plays, he can also experiment with different sounds and rhythms. You might also like to sing, dance and clap along to music with your child.
Here are some ideas to get your pre-schooler’s mind and body going:
Old milk containers, wooden spoons, empty pot plant containers, sticks, scrunched-up paper, plastic buckets, saucepans and old clothes are great for imaginative, unstructured play.
Simple jigsaw puzzles and matching games like dominoes help improve your child’s memory and concentration.
Playdough and clay help your child develop fine motor skills.
Favourite music or pots and pans are great for a dance concert or to make up music.
Balls and frisbees can encourage kicking, throwing or rolling.
When encouraging your child to kick or throw, try to get her to use one side of her body, then the other.
Your school-age child can have fun with the following objects and activities:
Furniture, linen, washing baskets, tents and boxes are great for building.
Home-made obstacle courses can get your child moving in different ways, directions and speeds.
Rhymes or games like ‘I spy with my little eye, something that begins with …’ are great for word play and help develop literacy skills.
Simple cooking or food preparation like measuring, stirring and serving food is great for developing numeracy and everyday skills.
Your child’s own imagination: with imagination, your child can turn himself into a favourite superhero or story character.
If your child is interested, you could think about getting her into some sports or team activities for school-age children. Other possibilities include after-school or holiday art and craft activities.
You don’t have to spend lots of money on toys, games and books for children. Homemade toys and free activities are often the most creative ways for you and your child to have fun together.
If your child doesn’t want to play
There might be times when your child doesn’t want to play – for example, he could be tired or bored by doing the same activity for too long. This is normal and usually nothing to worry about.
But sometimes a lack of play – or a lack of interest in play – can be a sign of a developmental disorder.
Consider speaking with a health professional or your child’s educator if:
your baby doesn’t seem to get into interactive play like peekaboo
your toddler has only a narrow interest in toys, or doesn’t use toys in a functional way – for example, is only interested in spinning the wheels of a toy car. instead of driving it around the room like other children of the same age
your pre-schooler isn’t interested in playing with other children, or isn’t interested in playing pretend games.
Video: Play and learning with babies (7-17 months)
Watch this video and learn tips on how to engage and play with your baby.
Video: Play and learning with toddlers (18-35 months)
Watch this video and learn tips on how to engage and play with your toddler.
Video: Play and learning with preschoolers (3-5 years)
Watch this video and learn tips on how to engage and play with your preschooler.
© raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission