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Apr 06, 2021

In addition to being fun, play helps children to think symbolically. They learn that one item can represent another — a block might represent a telephone. This kind of thinking is essential for literacy, where pictures and letters represent real things. When children act out stories or role play, this helps them build book/story background knowledge and learn how stories are structured.

Pretend play also helps develop executive function allowing your child step back from a problem and think about it from multiple angles. Pretending uses the same brain networks as real behavior, which means that if a child practices using pretend play, they are likelier to use those same brain networks in real situations.

Below is a list of some ideas for play you can with your child at various ages. This is not an exhaustive list and it is focused on play you can engage in with your child – this is not about games for your child to play alone or with other children. Those types of play are also important and help your children develop a variety of skills, but this blog does not address those. If you want to read more about types and styles of play, you can find more about that hereand elsewhere on the Internet.

Play: Tips and recommendations

0-12 months

  • Tickle games are perfect for this age. Round and Round the Gardenis the perfect example of this.
  • Naming body parts is another game that is appropriate for this age. Touch a body part and say its name (toe!) -- it’s as simple as that. Touching the body part as you say it will help your child remember the word.
  • Build it up, knock it down is a classic game. Build a tower together and then let your child knock it down. You can use old cereal boxes, lightweight books, plastic bowls, yoghurt pots, etc. This game will teach your baby will learn about shapes and sizes as well as cause and effect. If you have an exaggerated reaction when the tower falls down, your child will likely find these even more delightful.
  • Peek-a-boo is another classic. You can even include books into this game by peek around from behind and under and over a book.
  • Imitation games are also great fun. You can do this even with very young babies, but you will need to get closer to their face than you will with older children: stick out your tongue, tap your nose, smile, cross your eyes, etc. Babies and young children will imitate you instinctively.
  • Have a nonsense conversation. For more information about talking to your baby go here.

12-24 months

  • Play with the book as an object -- collect books and carry them around. Can you use it as a hat? Can you use it to play peek-a-boo?
  • Fill a bag with items similar to those you carry (for example, a toy cell phone, fake keys, and a wallet, Canadian Tire money). This helps your child develop both gross and fine motor skills and is an easy introduction to pretend play.
  • Find a large cardboard box that your child can play in. You can pretend this is a fire engine, a race car, a dump truck. In my house this box became the Bookmobile and my children chose books to go inside the box. Make engine noises and pretend to turn the "steering wheel." The more noises you make and actions you do the better.
  • By this age, children are able to understand that objects can represent other objects. Playing with this will help them develop their symbolic thinking. For example, a banana or a shoe can be a telephone.
  • Ask your child to put toys in a bucket and then take them out again. Or – and this may be even more fun – ask your child to dump out the bucket and then put the toys back into it. Either way this gives your child practice grasping small objects, which will help them develop the skills they need to write.
  • Build it up, knock it down 2: This time, use regular wooden blocks to build a tall tower and let them knock it down. This game helps build visual and fine motor skills and is a good way for your child practicing using two hands together. It also helps them grasp simple cause and effect.
  • Keep up the imitation games with your child. Tell them: “Do what I do!” and then make a funny face, stick out your tongue. Clap when they copy you. Use other parts of your body as well - hands, arms - encouraging them to do what you do. If you child wants to lead, that’s fine, too. This game demonstrates to your child how communication goes back and forth between two people.  
  • “New Words” is a more advanced imitation game. Say some new words and let your toddler imitate you, trying to repeat what you said. Make a game out of it. Every time they say a word clap, cheer, and repeat the word back. This game helps with communication, vocabulary, expressive language, and eye contact.

2 years and beyond

As children gets older, they are able to play more and more complex games (and they will be better able to play with other children). They will be able to dress up – you can give them costumes or clothing to wear. They will be able to role play (for example they can act our characters from a favourite book or they can pretend to be the parent). Let your child lead the play and follow along with them.

As their imaginations begin to take off, don’t forget physical play. When you really cannot be the dog/cat/baby for a single second longer then it’s time to bust out the hokey pokey or play some other physical game.

  • Put on a song and ask your child to freeze whenever the music pauses. This will help teach them self-control and is a fun and silly way for them to move around.
  • You can play a toy toss. Set up a bin and have your child throw bean bags or stuffies into it. Or, in a masterful move, have them toss their toys in bins to put them away.
  • Sorting games are also great at this age. You can sort objects by colour, by shape, by use. As above, you can sort toys right into their bins for clean up!
  • Hide an object and tell our child “hot” as they get closer and “cold” as they move further away from the object.
  • You can play with changing some of the words to books they know really well (take care with this one – some children don't like it! And Mileage may vary depending on mood)

Play is natural for children, so don’t overthink this. Nothing will kill playfulness like announcing “this is playtime now” or telling your child how they should be playing. Keep things open-ended. Try to follow your child’s lead as much as you can.

And, of course, don’t forget to