Preschooler play: why it’s important
Play is essential for 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 preschooler emotions. It also develops senses like touch and smell and gives preschoolers the chance to explore 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 language and vocabulary. You’ll get to see the funny side of your child’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 preschoolers 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, 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. Remember that play is meant to be fun – if a child is being bullied, forced or hurt, it isn’t play anymore.
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 themselves. 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 4 years, your child will be much more interested in playing with other children and making up games and rules together. Your child might be better at sharing and taking turns, but they’ll still need your support and encouragement.
At 5 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, preschool or school.
Around this age, preschoolers understand that other people have feelings too, and they’re beginning to develop empathy. This helps with preschooler friendships.
Family and home are at the centre of your child’s world, and you’re one of the most important people in your child’s life. That’s why play with you is very high on the list of things your child wants and needs to do.
Play ideas and games for preschoolers
Preschoolers 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 play ideas to get you and your child going.
Making, building and creating
- 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.
- 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 preschoolers enjoy making collages and other creations from these simple materials.
Reading, imagining and pretending
- Read with your child. When you’re reading favourite books, leave out words and let your child fill them in. Point out individual letters and words. You can also ask your child what they think might happen next in an unfamiliar story.
- 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 try making a magic wand by taping leaves and flowers to the end of a stick.
- 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. Preschoolers have a lot of fun with dress-ups.
- Involve your child in simple household ‘chores’. Let your child choose how they want to help. But remember that it’s more important for your preschooler to pretend that they’re a grown-up than it is for them to get the job done.
- Use play materials that have different sensory properties. For example, use sticky bricks to build with, or try fabric play with fabrics of different weights and textures.
- Encourage messy play. You can head outside for messy play with dirt and water. For messy play inside, try glue, paints or playdough, plus a smock on your child and a drop sheet on the floor.
Extending preschooler play
- Play games from diverse cultures to promote awareness of and respect for difference. You could ask people you know what they play or search online for ideas.
- 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 a lot of money.
- Introduce new challenges. By 4-5 years, your child might want to try activities like bike-riding and games like ‘Snap’, dominoes or simple memory games.
If your child has disability, autism or other additional needs, it’s good to think about the supports they might need to get the most out of play. For example, if your child has difficulty understanding verbal instructions, you might use pictures to show them the steps in a game or activity.
Preschooler play and screen time
Screen time 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 digital technology 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: