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Age-appropriate Play for Early Childhood Development

kid playing wooden toys

“Play Is The Work of the Child.”-  Maria Montessori.

Play is such an important part of any child’s development. However in the “hurry up and learn” culture of many in society, play simply gets lost.

People must remember that through play, children build the foundation for later learning. This is because the basis of play is learning to solve problems. It also helps to increase a sense of understanding of themselves, people around them, and the world around them.

Although it sounds simple “play” includes a variety of activities that are fun and interesting but have hidden skill building processes. These activities can include quiet play, creative play, active play, dramatic play, games, and manipulative play. How a child uses these types of play evolve as they get older.

Play also must be structured or unstructured to maximize opportunities for learning. So why are these types of play so important? Simply put, structured play has rules or a specific process to get from start to finish and unstructured play does not. Here are some specific examples:

Games—active games, card games, board games—are examples of structured play.

Unstructured play includes activities like playing house or free art.

What is age appropriate for my child?

Infants (birth to 18 months)

Infants learn to interact with the world around them very quickly. Babies interact with adult that talk, sing, laugh and expose them to sights, sounds and scents that entertain them. People can be the most favorite “play thing” that they have! This is why you should sing, dance, play peek-a-boo and cuddle often!

As muscles are built and babies begin to roll over and crawl, introducing toys that can be rolled and pushed helps further their skill set. Babies need to spend lots of time on the floor having tummy time too!

  • Brightly colored, toys with texture (no small pieces) encourage baby to touch and explore.
  • Mobiles, safety mirrors, musical or chime toys, crib gyms, busy boxes, nesting and stacking toys, simple pop-up toys, bathtub toys, simple rattles, and teethers all promote baby’s learning and development.
  • Soft, squeezable toys help baby practice grasping and reaching.
  • Push-pull toys strengthen muscles.
  • Dolls encourage baby to imitate what he sees adults doing and to make sense of his world
  • Simple press-together bricks, blocks, or pop beads develop eye-hand coordination.
  • Children’s books – cloth, vinyl, and cardboard – enhance language development.
  • Different types of music invite baby to experience different rhythms and sounds.

Toddlers (18 months – 36 months)

Toddlers spend many hours working to develop both small and large motor skills. Manipulating objects is a favorite pass time.  This could include putting things into a container and then dumping them out.

They can also learn from more messy play that includes water, sand,  soft clay or play dough.  Don’t forget toddlers require close supervision and safe play materials in case they decide to give them a taste! At this young age children are still using their sense of taste to explore their world.

Children’s interest in music often increases at this age too. Toddlers can sing songs, make their own music or even dance to music.

Toddlers also enjoy bouncing, rolling around, and throwing balls of different sizes. They also may like jumping on pillows, or making a house or fort out of a cardboard box. Play is much for involved and active at this age.

Although they are busy exploring what’s around them, toddlers also show an increasing interest in looking at books, themselves (in a mirror) or having someone read to them (often the same book over and over again).

Here are some of the basics you might want to include:

  • Pegboards with large pegs encourage the development of gross motor skills and strengthen the pincer grasp.
  • Play sets with people, animals, and cars can expand language skills.
  • Objects that pop up or have dials, switches, levers and knobs teach cause and effect and often hold their attention for a long time.
  • Simple puzzles with knobs or chunky pieces help develop eye-hand coordination and help toddlers understand how things fit together.
  • Push-pull items encourage walking while giving children the opportunity to imitate adults.
  • Children’s music allows toddlers to experiment with different sounds, rhythms, and patterns which will increase their body awareness.
  • Large items for stringing and lacing develop eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills such as grasping.
  • Children’s books with simple, colorful plots and pictures expose toddlers to different speech patterns and new vocabulary.
Preschooler (3-5 years old)

Preschool children’s play activities often build on things that they enjoy like princesses or favorite characters.  With stronger developed motor and social skills, preschoolers enjoy very active play.

Preschool-age children have better developed fine motor skills so using crayons, pencils and paints, safety scissors, and paste or glue are great activities. They also need lots of chances to play on playground, explore nature and use their large muscles, both indoors and outdoors.

Preschool children continue to build with blocks and building toys. Having a large supply of open-ended play materials that rely more on a child’s imagination are better learning tools for preschoolers than those that have limited uses (only one way to play with them).

For example, blocks can be used in many ways but a toy that moves or makes noise while a child sits and looks at it is very limited.

They are interested in each other and the world around them, and they enjoy showing off their new number and alphabet skills. Below are suggested products for supporting and encouraging a preschooler’s developing skills.

  • Dramatic play (dress up) items like dress-up clothes, play food and dishes, and dolls help children learn to cooperate and share with others.
  • Puppets can encourage preschoolers to explore the difference between fantasy and real-life and build language skills.
  • Sand and water toys can allow children to explore size, weight, measurement, and other science and math concepts.
  • Complex construction materials and natural building materials encourage preschoolers to use their creativity as well as math skills.
  • Accessories such as animals, vehicles, and furniture provide opportunities for preschoolers to balance, understand size and weight relations, solve problems, and share materials. It can also be an extension of dramatic play.
  • Children’s music increases self-confidence and body awareness and different rhythm patterns. Plus it helps get the wiggles out!
  • Simple games help preschoolers understand and follow rules.

In the end, don’t forget that young children need to have safe environments that they can explore. It’s also important to keep things simple and limit exposure to electronics and television.

Don’t fall for toys that call themselves “educational”. Not all toys are created equal. Keep only a couple toys out at a time and rotate them often. Don’t forget that this is such an amazing time in your child’s life!  Enjoy it!


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