Preschooler play: why it’s important for movement and motor skills development
Play is one of the main ways that children learn, develop and grow. Play is good for all areas of your child’s development, including their motor skills development.
Playing with your child each day strengthens their muscles and bones and gives them the chance to practise physical skills. It’s also good for your child’s confidence, as they test their abilities and discover that they can climb higher, run faster and jump further all the time.
And when your child gets plenty of physical activity into their day through play, it’s good for their overall health and wellbeing.
Australian guidelines say that preschoolers should be active for at least 3 hours every day. Active play can range from running and jumping to quieter activities like putting toys away, helping with everyday household tasks and going for walks.
What to expect: preschoolers and movement
Children of this age generally enjoy being active, although different children prefer different types of play and physical activity.
At 3-4 years, your child will probably:
- start to dress on their own
- use scissors quite well
- ride a scooter
- ride a tricycle by 4 years and start trying to ride a bike
- jump over small objects and swing independently on the swing
- walk up and down stairs without using a hand rail
- be more coordinated – for example, they might be able to kick a ball using their right or left leg
- be able to stand on one foot for short periods of time (both right and left).
At 5 years, your child is more coordinated and stronger. You might find your child can:
- hop well on both their left and right foot
- learn to skip
- dress themselves without your help
- learn to tie shoe laces
- throw, hit a ball with a bat or racquet, and bounce and catch a ball.
At this age, your child might want to play organised games with simple rules with other children. These might be games like chasey or piggy in the middle.
Small bumps and falls are common as your child pushes physical skills to the limit. This is a normal part of how children learn and develop.
If your child doesn’t seem interested in interacting with other children or is mostly inactive, it’s a good idea to talk with your child and family health nurse or GP about your child’s development.
Play ideas to get preschoolers moving
Here are play ideas to develop your child’s movement skills – and help you have fun together!
- Give your child some child-friendly sports equipment, like balls, bats or throwable beanbags.
- Give your child some large cardboard boxes. Your child can climb on top of them, crawl through them and push them around.
- Borrow or buy a balance bike or a bike with training wheels – your child might want to try this at about 4 years. And if it isn’t too far, walk, scoot or ride to get places – just remember your child’s helmet.
- Make time for outdoor play at a park or playground, in the backyard, on a beach or at a football ground. Moving around on various surfaces develops strength, balance and coordination.
- Make an obstacle course, treasure hunt or chalk racetrack outside with your child. This is a fun way for your child to learn how to plan an activity and be active.
- Listen to music that your child can dance to. You could make up actions to the songs together. If you make fabric play part of this activity, it can get your child moving their body in new ways.
- Do some rough-and-tumble play. Preschoolers are the biggest rough-and-tumblers and enjoy wrestling, rolling and climbing all over you, or over their siblings and friends.
- Go for a nature walk. This gets your child moving, and they can also collect leaves, sticks or pebbles for craft or pretend play when you get home.
Quiet, gentle activities are just as important for your child’s motor skills development as play that’s loud or energetic and that encourages bigger movements. For example, preschoolers can practise coordinating the small movements of their fingers through:
- peg play
- playdough play
- block play with Duplo or Lego
- drawing, scribbling and writing activities
- sand tray play.
Children learn from watching their parents. So if you want your child to be active, it’s good for you to be active too.
Screen time and physical play
You can use screen time and digital technology to encourage physical play. For example, you and your child can try things like:
- planning a walk using a digital map
- videoing your child learning a new skill like riding a bike, and replaying the footage so your child can see how they’re learning
- choosing video dance games or virtual sports simulators.
And remember – healthy preschooler screen time and digital technology use is all about balance. It’s good for your child’s development to do plenty of different activities, which include physical play, pretend and creative play, social play and reading, as well as digital play.
It’s worth thinking about how much time your child spends sitting still – for example, in a car seat or stroller. This should be no more than one hour at a time.