Play is the most valuable experience young children have to support and promote their academic learning! Symbolic thinking, problem-solving, persistence, organizing information, connecting ideas, creativity, following social rules, and having a strong sense of self—all concepts supported by play—are the foundation for all learning.
All young children are capable of and need independent play, so don’t feel like you need to constantly be engaged with them as they play! If playing independently is new for your child, you can support him by helping him create a play plan. This gives him something to reference so he can remember what he wants to do during this time. It also helps him independently sustain attention on what he is doing and redirect his attention back to his chosen task.
Here are some quick ways that you can support your children’s learning as they play with toys:
Very young infants are mostly interested in watching your face, hearing your voice, and being held. Once they can focus on objects and hold toys in their fists, they are ready to respond to toys you may provide.
Just as your baby lets you know when he is hungry, tired, or in need of a diaper change, his behavior lets you know when he is ready to play or when he is finished with one play experience and ready for another.
Here are the kinds of things you might say or do while playing with a young infant:
- Describe the experience: There’s Gabbi, in the mirror.
- Verbalize feelings: That surprised you, didn’t it?
- Play with language: Peek-a-boo. I see you. Peek-a, peek-a-BOO!
- Describe actions: You are holding your little feet. Your sock came off!
Once infants are mobile, they seem to be in love with the world and fascinated by everything in it. They are immediately interested when you place a basket of toys near them and will proceed to pull out every object they can reach, dumping each on the floor and then reaching for another. Filling and dumping are favorite activities of this age-group. Any container and object (or objects) will work. They also enjoy tossing things, so give them plenty of space and soft, unbreakable toys.
Here is what you might say and do while playing with an older infant:
- Describe what the child does and what happens (cause and effect): Look what happened when you pushed the button. The clown popped out!
- Encourage the child to solve problems: Uh oh, the ball rolled under the table! How can you get it?
- Build vocabulary by using descriptive words: You decided to play with the red fire truck. It’s the same color as your red shirt.
- Promote a recognition of group needs: You put all of the blocks back in the bucket where we keep them. That was a big job, so you and your brother did it together.
Toddlers use toys with increasing intention. As they play, they build their physical and language skills, learn concepts, apply thinking skills, explore the world of social roles and make-believe, and learn to be a member of a group.
Here are some ways you might respond to toddlers’ play.
- To promote physical skills: I see that you are using your big muscles today. Thank you for helping me carry these big blocks over to the couch.
- To support symbolic thinking skills: Can you find the picture on the box that matches the animal blocks?
- Encourage perseverance: It’s hard to get that puzzle piece to fit. Why don’t you turn it around and see if it fits then? I bet you can get it to fit.
- Promote a recognition of the needs of others: You are waiting patiently for your turn with the baby doll stroller.
Talk to two-year-olds about what they want to play with and what they intend to do. Use open-ended questions to encourage them to think about what they are doing and verbalize their thoughts. This supports their growing language skills and cognitive process skills of organizing information and connecting ideas.
Here are some ways you might interact with twos as they play with toys.
- Invite the child to talk about what he has done: Why did you arrange the cars that way?
- Describe what you see: First you used all of the rectangular blocks to build your farm. Then you added animals, and now you are adding people.
- Support social skills: Why don’t you both take the building blocks over to the rug so you can play together?
- Promote problem-solving skills: When you put the big block on top of the little one, your building fell down. How can you build it so it won’t fall?
- Ask open-ended questions: What do you think will happen if you try it another way?
As children get older, their play becomes more complex. They conduct experiments, explore objects in new ways, sort and classify materials, create patterns, and apply past learning in new ways. By talking with children about their play, you demonstrate appreciation for their work, support their learning and development, and encourage them to remain focused on what they’re doing.
Here are some ways you can encourage additional learning as your preschool child plays with toys:
- Introduce new vocabulary as children play with toys: slippery, curved, octagon, sturdy, angle, maroon, force, inspiration.
- Use mathematics terms like more, less, fewer, and same and encourage counting: You used fewer triangle blocks than square blocks. Let’s count to see how many of each you used.
- Introduce physical science concepts like balance, gravity, force, energy and momentum: That car really gained momentum going down the ramp! It went faster and faster!
- Support their emerging writing skills by encouraging children to make signs for the buildings they create, create instructions for a game, or make a menu for their pretend restaurant: You made a bakery, a pet hospital and a grocery store. Why don’t you make some signs for your buildings so people will know what they are?
- Ask open-ended questions to encourage their thinking: What do you think will happen if you try it another way?