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Play and learning

Play is a vital part of your child’s development. It is a natural way for your child to learn about the world around them.

Children who are encouraged to express themselves freely through play tend to be more able to adapt, learn skills and go on to behave and perform better at school.

As a parent it’s important to spend time playing with your child, providing stimulation and interaction, whatever their age. Learning to play with your child can be great fun and can bring you closer together.

One of the most important things you can do with your child is to listen, respond and talk from birth. Find out what sort of play interests your child and join in with it. Allow your baby or child to lead play whilst playing together – follow their interests and encourage ideas as this helps them develop problem solving skills. Encourage them to explore and develop independence but be there to offer support when needed.

Playing with babies

  • Offer interesting objects for your baby to look at. You will see that as you move an object slowly from side to side, your baby will follow it with their eyes. This is called tracking and is one of the first ways that young babies explore the world while building their visual skills.

  • Place your baby so that they can kick or hit at a mobile or rattle. Eventually, they will connect the act of kicking or hitting with the sounds the mobile makes when struck. Gradually they will start to make deliberate attempts to reach out to touch things.
  • Make everyday routines playful. For example, you could see if your baby like being massaged after baths or before bedtime, or enjoys a game of ‘round and round the garden’ or ‘row, row, row your boat’.
  • Share board books together, either by reading them to your baby or just letting them gaze at the pictures. Eventually they will learn to recognise objects in the pictures and will make sounds or actions connected to these.
  • Offer interesting objects to touch so your baby can begin to learn about how different textures feel. This helps them learn through their senses. Exploring objects with eyes, and later hands and mouth, also helps babies discover how different objects work and what they do. This makes your baby a good thinker and problem-solver.
  • If your baby starts turning their head away, arching his back, or generally seeming distressed while you are playing, it may be that he they have become over-stimulated and is telling you they need a break.

Playing with toddlers and older children

  • Sing songs and nursery rhymes.
  • Dance and listen to music together.
  • Visit parks and open spaces as often as possible so that children can run, climb, be really noisy etc. Try and go out in all kinds of weather and provide suitable clothing so that your child can jump in puddles, get muddy etc.
  • Develop your child’s imagination and language by joining them in pretend games – e.g. cafes, doctors, doll play etc.
  • Get down on the floor with them and join them in building with bricks, playing with cars, building a den etc.
  • Make everyday tasks such as unpacking shopping and laying the table fun by involving your child and encouraging them to help you.
  • Cook and prepare food together – e.g. fruit salads
  • Plant seeds or bulbs in pots or in the garden. Take time with your child to stop and look at insects, flowers, birds and animals.
  • Read books with them and make up your own stories. Local libraries usually have a good range of children’s books.
  • Provide opportunities for children to paint and draw and get involved in messy play, such as shaving foam on a tray, playdough etc. Recipes for making this cheaply at home are available on the internet.
  • Play games involving the numbers, colours, shapes, letters and words you see when you are out and about – on street signs, buses, when shopping etc.
  • If you're looking for new ideas for things to do then find out what is on offer at your local children’s centre. Many offer ‘messy play’ activities which you and your child can join in with, and many of the activities they provide are free. Staff can also give you advice about the kinds of books or other activities your child might enjoy at different ages.

TVs and computers

Children can learn a lot from TV, computers, tablets and smart phones, especially if you are sharing the experience with them so that you check what they are looking at and can talk together about what you are watching or doing.

However if children are spending too much time sitting in front of a screen it may prevent them from learning and developing in other areas. Being active is important in terms of developing a healthy lifestyle so ensure that your child is also getting lots of opportunities to be involved in play that involves movement.

Consider limiting your child’s time in front of a screen to less than two hours a day from two years old, and ideally no screen time before the age of two years.