By Raising Children Network
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Toddlers with plasticine
Play is more than just fun for babies and children. It’s how they learn, and how they work out who they are, how the world works and where they fit into it.

You can read this article in a selection of languages other than English.

The importance of play

Playing is one of the most important things you can do with your child. The time you spend playing together gives your child lots of different ways and times to learn.

Play also helps your child:

  • build confidence
  • feel loved, happy and safe
  • develop social skills, language and communication
  • learn about caring for others and the environment
  • develop physical skills
  • connect and refine pathways in her brain.
Your child will love playing with you, but sometimes he might prefer to play by himself and won’t need so much hands-on play from you. He might just want you to give him ideas and let him know how his 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 her imagination and move at her own pace.

Examples of unstructured play might be:

  • creative play alone or with others, including artistic or musical games
  • imaginative games – for example, making cubby houses with boxes or blankets, dressing up, playing make-believe
  • exploring new or favourite play spaces such as 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 him in the right direction – towards the jumble of dress-ups and toys on his 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 being important lessons for your child, but she might just think they’re fun
  • storytelling groups for toddlers and preschoolers at the local library
  • dance, music or drama classes for children of all ages
  • family board or card games
  • modified sports for slightly older children, such as In2CRICKET, Aussie Hoops basketball, NetSetGO netball, Come and Try Rugby, and Auskick football.
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 he plays will change – he’ll get more creative and experiment more with toys, games and ideas. This might mean he needs more space and time to play.

Also, children progress 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 using the following to play with your little one:

  • music, songs, bells or containers filled with different objects: these objects can help develop hearing and movement
  • objects of different sizes, colours and shapes: these can encourage reaching and grasping
  • sturdy furniture, balls, toys or boxes: these can get your child crawling, standing and walking.

Tummy time and floor play are 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.

Your toddler might enjoy:

  • a range of big and light things such as cardboard boxes, buckets or blow-up balls: these can encourage running, building, pushing or dragging movements
  • chalk, rope, music or containers: these can encourage jumping, kicking, stomping, stepping and running
  • hoops, boxes, large rocks or pillows: these can be used for climbing, balancing, twisting, swaying or rolling
  • hills, tunnels or nooks: these can encourage physical activities like crawling and exploring.

If you put on some favourite music while your toddler plays, she can also experiment with different sounds and rhythms.

Here are some ideas to get your preschooler’s mind and body going:

  • old milk containers, wooden spoons, empty pot plant containers, sticks, scrunched-up paper, plastic buckets, saucepans and old clothes: your child can use these for imaginative, unstructured play
  • simple jigsaw puzzles
  • favourite music or pots and pans: your child can use these for a dance concert or to make up music
  • balls and frisbees: these can encourage practice in kicking, throwing or rolling.

When encouraging your child to kick or throw, try to get him to use one side of his body, then the other.

School-age children
Your school-age child can have fun with:

  • furniture, linen, washing baskets, tents and boxes that can be used for building
  • her imagination alone, as she pretends to be a favourite superhero
  • home-made obstacle courses that get her moving in different ways, directions and speeds
  • word play, such as rhymes or games like ‘I spy with my little eye, something that begins with …’.

If your child is interested, you could think about getting him 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, she 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 more serious developmental disorder.

Consider speaking with a health professional if:

  • your baby doesn’t seem to get into interactive play (such as 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 the same age
  • your preschooler isn’t interested in playing with other children, or isn’t interested in playing pretend games.

Languages other than English

Video Play and learning at playgroups

This video explains how playgroups can give your child some great play and learning opportunities. For example, playgroups can help children start learning social skills such as communicating, sharing and taking turns. These are all skills kids need for playing with other children and getting along with grown-ups.

The video also includes information on child care and preschool, and how these environments can benefit children.

  • Last updated or reviewed 09-02-2015