Preschooler play: why it’s important
Play is essential to preschooler development. Different kinds of play help preschoolers develop and learn in many different ways:
- Dramatic and pretend play: preschoolers use games like dress-ups to act out confusing or scary scenarios, try out different roles, and explore emotions.
- Messy play: play with paints, water, sand or dirt is a great outlet for children’s emotions and helps to develop senses like touch and smell. Children also enjoy exploring different textures, smells, colours and so on.
- Physical play: jumping, running, kicking balls and climbing over playground equipment develops coordination and balance. It also helps preschoolers test the limits of their physical abilities.
- Songs, books, riddles and silly rhymes: these help to improve your child’s language and vocabulary. You’ll get to see the funny side of your preschooler’s personality through these activities.
- Sorting games: activities like sorting blocks, buttons or pegs help to build basic maths and numeracy skills – just make sure to pack away small objects after play to avoid choking hazards.
- Outdoor play: jumping in puddles, looking at insects, running down hills and lying in the grass are good for physical health, development and self-confidence. These activities also give children the chance to explore the natural environment.
- Simple board games: these kinds of games give preschoolers a chance to learn about taking turns, following the rules, counting and playing fair. Although turn-taking can be a challenge for children, with practice your child can learn to enjoy this type of play.
- Rough-and-tumble play: this kind of play gives preschoolers the chance to test out strength, space and social relationships. But play is meant to be fun – if a child is being bullied, forced or hurt, it isn’t play anymore. You can teach your child that when another child says ‘stop’, the game needs to end.
Your child needs plenty of time for unstructured play. This is play that just happens, depending on what takes your child’s interest. Sometimes it might be something active like dancing. Other times it might be quietly sorting blocks by herself. Structured music or gym classes can be fun, but your child mostly just needs free time to play.
Preschooler play and games with others: what to expect
By four years, your child will be much more interested in playing with other children and making up games and rules together. He might be better at sharing and taking turns, but he’ll still need your support and encouragement.
At five years, children are much more aware of their place in the world and are keen to fit in with other children. In general, your child wants to follow the rules at home and at preschool or school.
Around this age preschoolers understand that other people have feelings too, and are beginning to develop empathy. This helps with preschooler friendships.
Family and home are still at the centre of your child’s world, and you’re still the most important person in your preschooler’s life. That’s why play with you is still very high on the list of things your child wants and needs to do.
Play ideas and games for preschoolers
Children learn most when they’re interested in play. That’s why it’s important to follow your child’s lead when it comes to games for preschoolers.
Here are some play ideas to get you and your preschooler going:
- Read with your preschooler. When you’re reading favourite books, leave out words and let your preschooler fill them in. Point out individual letters and words. You can also ask your child what she thinks might happen next in an unfamiliar story.
- Give your child a cardboard box. Your child’s imagination can turn it into a cubbyhouse, a boat or a car. A small table turned on its side covered with a blanket or sheet can also be just as good.
- Put together a dress-up box of old clothes, fabric or scarves, shoes, handbags and other odds and ends. An old backpack transforms your child into an explorer. A towel makes a superhero. Both boys and girls have a lot of fun playing dress-ups.
- Play stacking, sorting and building games with blocks or other objects. Your child could sort by colour, size or shape. It’s also fun to make repeating patterns – like red, blue, red, blue – with objects.
- Make up an art and craft box for your child. You can fill it with pencils, crayons, glue, wool scraps, bits of different coloured and textured papers, small cardboard pieces and other odds and ends. Many children enjoy making collages and other creations from these simple materials.
- Use simple, natural materials for imaginative play. Natural materials are free and you can find them in your backyard or local park. For example, you could also try making a magic wand by taping leaves and flowers to the end of a stick.
- Encourage messy play. You can head outside for messy play with dirt and water. Messy play inside with glue, paints or playdough often goes well if you pop a smock on your child and a drop sheet on the floor.
- Involve your child in simple household ‘chores’. Let your child choose how he wants to help. But remember that it’s more important for your preschooler to pretend that he’s a grown-up than it is for him to get the job done.
- Join a toy library or share toys with other families. This lets your child play with new toys, but you don’t need to spend lots of money.
- Introduce new challenges. By four and five years, your child might want to try activities like bike-riding and games like ‘Snap’, dominoes or simple memory games.
Play and screen time
Screen use and digital technology is likely to be part of your child’s play experience. That’s fine – it’s all about helping your child achieve a healthy approach to screen time. This means balancing screen use with other activities that are good for development, like outdoor play, pretend play, reading and social play.
It’s also good to know that digital technology can spark your child’s play and imagination. And when your child does use digital technology for play, here are a few things you can do to help your child get the most out of it: