By Raising Children Network
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By age four or five, your preschooler might have one or two special friends. Play starts to unlock the social skills your child will use throughout life, like how to get along with other people.

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Why play is important

Different kinds of play build different kinds of learning:

  • Creativity: when you encourage your child to play, it exercises imagination and helps your child express emotions.
  • Role-play: dressing up gives your child a chance to act out scenarios that might otherwise be scary or confusing.
  • Messy play: playing with paints or water or in the sandpit is a good outlet for emotions.
  • Coordination: clambering over playground equipment teaches coordination, balance and physical limits.
  • Cooperation: board games teach your child about taking turns, following the rules, counting and being a good loser. These are tough lessons for any preschooler.
  • Laughing: songs, books, riddles and rhymes tickle your child’s funny bone and teach him new words.
Research suggests that the building blocks for lifelong self-esteem are set in place during the preschool years. This is when your child is growing socially and personally. You can read more about why play is important for children.

Playtime or learning?

When you play together, your child is watching what you do. So you can use your own behaviour as a role model to guide your child.

What you do is often much more important than what you say. You can show your child how to play cooperatively, take turns and share. As you play, you can encourage your child by asking her questions and exploring different ways of doing things. And while you might think you’re just spending a lovely afternoon together, your child is actually learning many different skills.

Your child’s creativity will develop best when you give him lots of freedom. At this age, he might even bend the rules a bit as he plays. Try to step back and let him make his own fun. You can be on hand to help, comment and join in when invited.

Toys can be a great way to kickstart your child’s play and support her development, but choosing the right toys can be tricky. The best toys aren’t always the fanciest or most expensive. For example, homemade games and toys can keep your child entertained, help her learn and grow, and really fire up her creativity. They’re also a great way to play without paying.

Computer games and programs can be fun for preschoolers – and educational too. But they do have some negatives. You can help your preschooler get the most out of computer time by choosing appropriate games and programs.

Looking for more fun? Read our article on playgroups, which also explains how to find a playgroup in your local area.

Reading with your preschooler

Books open up amazing new worlds and experiences. Stories help your child improve speech, imagination and even counting skills. Reading and storytelling together can become a much-loved ritual.

To make the most of reading with your preschooler, you can try talking about what’s happening in the pictures. Ask your child to guess what might happen next. You could also count objects in the pictures.

You might also ask your child to spot familiar things in the pictures, and talk about how they relate to the story. For example, ‘Can you see the moon in this picture? Why is the boy looking at the moon?’ Other than that – just lose yourselves in the story!

    The best books are those that stand up to reading over and over, night after night. Books with imaginative illustrations are great, because you can weave new stories around the pictures. And pop-up books are also still full of fun surprises for this age group.

    Preschoolers are developing their sense of humour, so they often love books with a ridiculous story – even if they’re not sure the story is actually true.

    For more on the importance of reading to your child, and a list of books your child might like, you can read our article on reading with preschoolers.

    Play ideas for preschoolers

    To release emotions and express feelings, you can encourage your child to:

    • act out feelings by role-playing with puppets or toys
    • run wild – a safe space for tumbling, rolling and giggling loudly can help release emotions
    • paint and draw
    • get into some rough-and-tumble play and play fighting – this can help children understand their own strength, and work out their social relationships.

    Explore some more great ‘feeling’ play ideas

    To enhance imagination and creativity, you could give your child the chance to:

    • read books and share silly rhymes with you
    • play dress-ups with a box of old cast-offs (don’t forget to throw in some crazy hats)
    • try something he has never done before, like a bushwalk or museum visit.

    Discover other imagination games.

    To encourage thinking, you and your child could:

    • play board games together
    • read books and tell riddles
    • play memory card games.

    Find some other great thinking games.

    To help with reading and identifying numbers, you could:

    • read together often – you might like to make it a bedtime ritual
    • cook simple recipes together, like a cake – try talking about how much of each ingredient you’re using
    • set up a ‘shop’ at home and let your child ‘buy’ items from you
    • consider using online educational resources.

    Read more about activities to promote literacy and numeracy in the early years.

    Media, screen time and your preschooler

    TV and DVDs are a part of most children’s lives, and there are benefits of media for children. But watching a lot of TV (four or more hours a day) isn’t recommended for preschoolers. This is because it can interfere with an active imagination – after all, kids love to invent their own games and activities. It can also lead to obesity.

    Child development experts believe that an hour of screen time a day is plenty for children aged 2-5 years.

    Children see TV differently from grown-ups. For example, preschoolers don’t always understand the difference between fantasy and reality, and they might be really upset by scary visual images. So understanding how children see TV and other media such as movies, computer games and internet content can help you make the most of TV for your preschooler. 

    But working out whether a TV program or other media is good quality can be tricky. You can be guided by the age classification, and you can use your own judgment about whether it’s high quality, challenging and well made. If you’re choosing a movie, you might like to browse our child-friendly movie reviews, which include age recommendations and warnings.

    If your child is watching TV, she might come across advertisements. You can help her develop an important skill for life by talking about what ads are and what they’re trying to do.

    You might be starting to think about choosing a school for your child. For some parents, choosing a school is as easy as geography – the one closest to home is right. For others, school selection can be more complicated. It’s normal to feel anxious about this decision.
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    • Newsletter snippet: Preschooler play and learning: in a nutshell

      By Raising Children Network

      Playtime can be a time for learning and developing self-esteem for preschoolers.

      • Playing helps unlocks the social skills that preschoolers will use throughout their lives.
      • Playtime teaches them about themselves and how to get along with people.
      • Playtime teaches coordination, balance and physical limits.
      • Board games teach cooperation.
      • Reading with children helps improve their speech, imagination and counting.

      Helpful tips

      • Try role-playing to help your preschooler release emotions and express feelings.
      • Read books to develop creativity and imagination.
      • Play board and card games to develop thinking.
      • Set up a ‘shop’ to help your preschooler learn to read and count.
      • An hour of screen time a day is plenty for children aged 2-5 years.

      This article is an extract only. For more information, visit

      Sourced from the Raising Children Network's comprehensive and quality-assured Australian parenting website

    • Last Updated 12-03-2012
    • Last Reviewed 01-12-2011