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Play is essential to a child’s learning and development. According to the American Pediatrics Association, play contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. It gives different ways and opportunities to learn. Other important ways that play helps your child include:

  • Developing social skills, language, and communication
  • It helps children develop their problem-solving skills.
  • They learn how to care for other people, animals, and the environment.
  • They develop physical skills, gain muscle strength, and have active, healthy bodies.
  • It helps children develop new competencies, thereby enhancing their confidence and resilience.
  • When they play with their parents, children feel happy and safe.

But regardless of the benefits, for children, play is the pure joy they cherish so much!

Different types of play

All types of play fall into either structured or unstructured play categories. 

Unstructured play (free play)

This is the best type of play for young children. It is spontaneous. Your child simply develops an interest and goes for it without a plan, just by their imagination and pace. Free play helps the children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately pursue their own passions.

Some good examples of unstructured are:

  • Imaginative games- such as playing dress-up, role-playing, or building structures using boxes or clothes.
  • Creative play- they can do it alone or with others and may include musical games or art.
  • Venturing into new or favorite play spaces like closets, cupboards, backyards, playgrounds, parks, etc.

Structured play

This type of play is organized. It usually takes place at a set time and place. Often, it is led by a grown-up.

Some good examples of structured play include:

  • Water familiarization lessons for toddlers and swimming lessons for older children such as water slides
  • Dance, music, drama, and martial arts classes for children
  • Storytelling groups for children in classes or library
  • Family games like football, cards, running, etc.
  • Modified sports for older children e.g., football, rugby, basketball, cricket, etc.

Both structured and unstructured play can be done indoors or outdoors, but the outdoor play takes the game to the next level. Children get the opportunity to explore, be physically active, test the limits, and get real messy!

According to experts, when a child is given time and space to play unrestricted, it allows their imagination to run wild, and they get to explore ideas. As parents, you just have to give them time and play space. The good news is that you don’t need a large play space; just give them play items like cardboard boxes, toys, etc. and your existing space will be fine.

Unoccupied play

Unoccupied play is a play where the child is seemingly making random movements with no objective. This play sets the stage for future play exploration.

Solitary (independent) play

Just the name – the child is playing alone. It teaches the child to be self-entertaining, self-sufficient, and develop decision-making skills.

Solitary play is most common with babies below 3 years because they tend to be self-centered and lack good communication skills. Also, it is the top choice of play for shy children.

Onlooker play

This is most common with young children. They simply watch other children playing without participating. Sometimes it is because the children feel inhibited because they aren’t able to communicate well, or they haven’t learned the rules of the game or because of shyness or simply because they are too young in comparison and prefer to take a back seat.

Parallel play

In this type of play, children play their own games but alongside each other. Even though they are not playing together, children still observe one another, mimic one another’s behavior, and teach each other.

Associative play

This play is only slightly different from the parallel play. The children play separately from one another, but they get involved in what the others are doing. A good example is building a house or cooking. They talk and engage each other, creating friendships in the process.

Associative play is excellent for developing social skills, cooperation, language and communication, and problem-solving skills.

Cooperative play

In this play, children of all ages come together and indeed play together. Cooperative play is common in older preschoolers or younger preschoolers with their older siblings or a setting with lots of children. It could involve building a puzzle together, outdoor activities, or even a treasure hunt game.

Other types of play

These types of plays develop as your child grows and begin to participate in cooperative play and include:

Competitive play: these normally have rules and take turns. Examples are racing, soccer, climbing, and more. You need to guide your child on how to deal with winning and losing.

Drama/fantasy play: this play is excellent for children who love to play dress-up. It stretches their imagination and teaches them how to cooperate, take turns, share, improve language, and communicate effectively. Role-playing helps kids learn how to live in the community.

Physical play: the children utilize their gross and fine motor skills through being physically active in play. It helps the children develop strength, coordination, balance, and general physical fitness.

Constructive play: children engage in this type of play to build objects using blocks or sand, mud, etc. Constructive play teaches children to manipulate, to fit things together, and to build. It helps them utilize their cognitive skills to figure out what needs to be done.

Artistic play: it usually involves vocals to sing, tell jokes, make music, or create rhymes. 

Another example is graphic arts; children can color or draw. Artistic play enables the children to explore and express their ideas, experiences, and emotions.

How play develops with your child

As your child grows older, their creativity increases, and they experiment more with toys, games, and ideas. In time, they might need more space and time to play.

They also engage in different forms of play, such as playing alone, playing alongside other children, and playing with other children interactively.

Newborns and Babies: Play Ideas To Encourage Development

You serve as the best entertainer when you engage playfully with your newborn or baby. When they look upon your face and listen to your voice when you smile at them, roll your eyes, poke out your tongue, or make funny growling sounds, you totally rock their world!

You can also try the following ideas and activities to play with your baby:

  • Play some music, ring a bell, or sing some songs as you gently tap on your baby’s tummy: it will help them develop hearing and movement.
  • Play peekaboo: this play is great for your baby’s social and emotional development.
  • Give your baby items that have different textures to feel e.g., feathers, wool, mud, foam, or metal: it will help her develop the sense of touch.
  • Place objects of different sizes, shapes, and colors nearby: it will motivate your child to reach and grasp.
  • Place them where there is sturdy furniture, toys, balls, or boxes: they will motivate your child to crawl, stand, and walk.
  • Take your baby outside or inside the house and let them glance at different things, and different people- it is refreshing.
  • Read to your baby. It is never too early to start, just make sure the book is close enough for them to see. About 20- 30 cm in front of them should work out fine.

It is also crucial to engage your baby with regular tummy time as well as place your baby on the floor to play. Studies have shown that tummy time helps your baby develop muscle strength and control. It also allows your baby to view and experience the surrounding environment from a different angle than they are used to.

Toddlers: Play Ideas to Encourage Development

Check out below some ideas that your toddler might enjoy:

  • Give your toddler water and different food colors to make “magic potions” (colored liquids).
  • Make cornflour and water mixture for your child to paint
  • Allow the child to participate in watering plants
  • Go out with your toddler during winter wearing old clothes, and jump in messy puddles
  • Buy for your toddler a water gun and let them enjoy shooting streams of water
  • When having a bubble bath, let your child break and blow and pop those big bubbles.
  • Give your toddler a sponge, a spray bottle filled with water, and a duster, and let them scrub the floor.
  • Have your toddler play dolly-dress up using cut clothes from colored papers, magazines, or painted paper that can be changed.
  • Nature-trail mobiles- let your toddler collect objects that are fascinating when taking a walk in different places such as leaves, containers, feathers, and sticks. Let her decorate the ‘treasures’ using paints or glitters with the option of hanging them using sticks.
  • Give them big and light items such as buckets, cardboard boxes, or blow-up balls to build, push, or drag.
  • Pillows, boxes, hoops, or large rocks are great for climbing on, balancing, swaying, rolling on, or twisting.
  • Scarves, hats, shoes are great for dress-up games; they help your child develop imagination and creativity.
  • Hills and tunnels encourage crawling and exploring, which are good for physical exercises.
  • It would also be a good idea to sing, clap or dance along to music with your toddler; it will allow her to experiment with different sounds and rhythms.

Preschoolers: Play Ideas to Encourage Development

  • Give the children some balls; it will encourage throwing, kicking, or rolling
  • Play music or let the children use containers, pots, and pans, and sticks to make music. For more fun, the children can make funny faces into a frozen pose when the music is paused.
  • Simple jigsaw puzzles and matching games help to improve your child’s memory and concentration.
  • Do a scavenger hunt: use any themes such as letters of colors, patterns, and hunt around the house. Have a clipboard to check off items as the children go. They will crawl, reach up high, and get down low.
  • Throw away containers, wooden spoons, empty plant pots, sticks, pans, buckets, scrunched-up paper, and old clothes are good for imaginative, unstructured play.
  • Come up with a cooperative storyline and let the children take turns adding a line to the story. The sillier, the better!
  • Let the child draw their portrait using a mirror and decorate themselves any way they like.
  • Let the kids help you out the next time you are planting a plant in the pot or watering. In the process, teach them the name of the plant or flower.
  • Make up an easy, hands-on cooking project for your child. It will help them develop their sensory skills, use logical order, and enhance their confidence.
  • Get your child’s favorite storybook, costumes, and props, then play dress up, act out the characters, and have fun. You can use dolls and puppets as well and just have fun.
  • Play-dough and clay help your child develop fine motor skills.
  • To practice gross motor skills, use laundry baskets, balled-up socks, or paper to practice throwing and accuracy.
  • Use yarn, string, or rope to create a makeshift balance beam; it will help improve their balance and gross motor skills.
  • Encourage your children to race, jump, and hope and cheer them on.
  • When you’re encouraging your child to kick or throw, try to get him to use one side of his body, then the other.

School-age children play ideas to encourage the development

Your school-age child can use the following items and activities to have fun:

  • Furniture, fabric, washing baskets, boxes, and tents; can be used for building cubby houses, for instance.
  • Plays using homemade obstacles such as ropes, laundry baskets, or furniture causes your child to move in different ways, directions, and speed.
  • Wordplay games and complex puzzles can help children develop literacy skills
  • Food preparation and cooking are great for developing numeracy and 

everyday skills.

  • Your child’s own imagination can allow her to turn herself into a favorite superhero or story character.
  • Music: let the children sing and make music using simple homemade instruments. They can also dance to music competitively. Music and dance are great for physical activity as well as expressing emotions and imagination.
  • Art and craft: give the children old magazines, crayons, glue, paint, brush, scissors, and any other art material. They can cut out pictures and stick on paper to make a collage. Also, they can simply draw pictures and paint them.
  • Outdoor play such as riding bikes and other wheeled toy cars such as tricyles & wagons, walking, racing, and climbing.
  • Playing games like football, netball, cricket, soccer and more
  • Solving puzzles, jigsaws, card games, board games, and memory games 
  • Using digital technology such as games, apps, music, and other media so long as there is parental guidance. Digital technology is a great learning tool that can help broaden a child’s imagination.

If your child has shown interest, it would be great to have them join some sport or team activities meant for their age or an art and craft class, music, martial arts, or drama.

If your child doesn’t want to play

There are times when your child is not willing to play; it may be because he is tired or bored by doing the same thing over and over for long. It is normal and shouldn’t stress you out.

However, sometimes unwillingness to play can be a sign of a developmental order.

Here are some instances that you should consider discussing with your health provider:

  • Your baby is never interested in interactive play such as peekaboo
  • Your toddler is selective and doesn’t use toys in a functional way or a narrow-minded approach. For example, he prefers to spin the wheels of his toy car instead of driving it around the room like other children his age.
  • Your preschooler child is never interested in playing with other children or isn’t interested in playing pretend games.
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