Play and learning for children under three years
Play is more than just fun for babies and toddlers. It’s how they learn. And they learn best when they have warm relationships with their main carers. So helping your child learn is simple: just play and enjoy time together
Why play is important
Whether your child is playing peek-a-boo with you or squishing playdough, it’s all part of learning and development as he or she explores the world. Play helps children work out who they are, how the world works and where they fit into it.
Play helps your child:
How children learn through play
- build confidence
- feel loved, happy and safe
- develop social skills, language and communication
- learn about caring for others and the environment
- develop physical skills.
Young children learn best by actively engaging with their environment – for example, experimenting with dirt and water to make mud pies.
It’s also great if your baby or child can also be involved in his or her own learning – this can be as simple as choosing which story to read or what to play on at the park. Being able to try lots of different activities keeps things stimulating for your child.
What you need for play
For babies and toddlers, the best toy is you
You don’t need 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 play, learn and have fun together.
Babies and play
Just looking at your face and hearing your voice is play for your baby, especially if you’re smiling. Even very simple games help your baby develop his eye strength, hearing and motor skills.
Try the following ideas:
- Blow raspberries, poke out your tongue and make faces.
- Play simple word-action games like pat-a-cake and peekaboo.
- Use a soft ball to encourage your child to reach, grasp, crawl or walk.
Make sure some of your play with your baby includes tummy time. This is when your baby lies on his tummy with his weight on his forearms. You can talk and sing to him or her, shake a rattle or show him or her a book to keep interested.
Tummy time builds head, neck and upper body strength for when your baby is older. Your baby can start with 1-2 minutes of tummy time each day and build up to 10-15 minutes.
Toddlers and play
Your toddler is keen to experience and learn about the world. He or she wants to see how things work. They might repeat things to master skills and understand what to expect in certain situations. They may also be engaging in more imaginative play, which helps them explore new emotions and ideas.
Your toddler might enjoy:
- singing songs and nursery rhymes
- drawing and painting
- outdoor play in the park or garden – with endless opportunities for exploration, imaginative play and physical activity.
Early numeracy and literacy skills
A child’s journey towards literacy
involves more than just knowing etters. Learning to read and write involves learning to speak, listen, understand, watch and draw.
Talking, singing and telling stories with your child teaches them about how sounds come together to form language. When they are old enough, you can encourage your child to scribble with crayons and markers. Let them ‘write their name’ on birthday cards or letters in a big swirl of colour!
You can help your child start learning numeracy skills
through everyday play and activities.
Sing counting songs to your baby. Use words like ‘big’ and ‘little’, ‘heavy’ and ‘light’. You could even change the tone of your voice to make the meanings clearer – for example, use a loud, deep voice to describe something big. Ask your toddler how many slices of apple he or she wants, or point out the house numbers when you go for a walk.
Reading with babies and toddlers
Reading aloud and sharing stories with your child from birth is one of the most important and enjoyable things you can do.
Reading helps your child get familiar with sounds, words, language and, eventually, the value and joy of books.
Stories stimulate your baby’s or toddler’s imagination and curiosity, and help them learn about the world around them. It can also be a safe way to explore strong emotions and unfamiliar experiences.
Make a routine, and try to share at least one book every day
. This can be a relaxing way to end the day, and it’s a great way to bond and spend time together. Hold your child close or on your knee while you read, so they can see your face and the book. And be prepared to read the same story over and over again!
Babies and toddlers usually enjoy books that have good rhyme, rhythm and repetition – and these qualities can help your child learn.
For babies, you can look for:
- books with bright colours or simple, large and high-contrast pictures like black and white pictures
- books with different textures so your baby can hear, see and feel the book
- books with pictures of babies and faces
- soft, waterproof plastic and cloth books that can go in your baby’s mouth and into the bath.
- Toddlers might especially enjoy:
- books with animals and animal noises
- books about a favourite topic, like cars, fairies, pets, stars and planets, music, castles, the ocean or trains
- books about playtime that relate to their experiences
- lift-the-flap and pop-up books.
Child development experts recommend limiting children’s daily screen time. The most recent guidelines from the American Academy of Paediatrics say:
- children under 18 months should have no screen time other than video-chatting
- children aged 18 months to 2 years can watch or use high-quality programs or apps if adults watch or play with them to help them understand what they’re seeing
- children aged 2-5 years should have no more than an hour a day of screen time, with an adult watching or playing with them.
Your young child will enjoy screen time more and learn more from it if you’re watching or playing with him or her.
When you watch or play with your child
, it means she or he still gets what benefits him the most – your responses to him and the world around him.
This article was published with permission from the Raising Children Network.