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Play with children

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Play has always been part of learning and growing, as well as providing enjoyment and fun. Just as baby animals learn about what they will have to do in future by romping and pretend fights, so human children learn about their world through playing.


An important part of play for young children is play with parents, and there should be some time for this every day. A toy company some years ago asked a large number of five year olds what they would like for Christmas, and their survey found that many children wanted more time with their parents!

Why play is important

Play is one of the most important needs your child has.

  • It is one of the ways children learn about and practise living in their world and their culture.
  • It also helps children to manage their feelings and to cope with upsetting things that happen in their lives.
  • Play helps build relationships.
  • And play is relaxation and fun!

Play and learning

Here are some of the ways children learn through play.

Learning - intellectual development
  • Sorting toys - learning about number and grouping
  • Puzzles - learning about shapes, sizes, number
  • Posting boxes - learning about space and size
  • Hitting a mobile and making it move - learning about cause and effect
  • Card games and board games
  • Making up games
Developing motor (physical) skills
  • Pushing and pulling toys
  • Riding on toys
  • Picking up small things
  • Throwing and catching
  • Climbing toys
  • Using crayons or paint brushes
  • Writing
  • Computer games
  • Hitting balls
Social/emotional development
  • Playing alongside others and watching them
  • Playing with others
  • Playing mothers and fathers
  • Copying adults and practising adult tasks and roles
  • Water, paint and mud - expresses feelings
  • Music - relaxes and expresses feelings
  • Pretend play - dressing up
  • Games with rules (eg hopscotch, card games, ball games)
Developing language
  • Stories and books
  • Songs
  • Nursery rhymes
  • Games with friends and adults
  • Talking to each other
  • Listening to children's programs on TV or iPad, etc

Learning to talk is important and should be fun. The best thing parents can do is talk with babies and young children often.


  • Very young infants need to make sense of their world.
  • They need things to see and hear (changes of scenery, parents' voices, music, mobiles).
  • They start to learn cause and effect, eg. if they hit a rattle it makes a noise.
  • They start to learn turn-taking, eg. parent pokes out her tongue then infant does - this is the very early beginnings of conversation.


  • Children are starting to learn about who they are and about being separate from their carers.
  • They like 'come and go' games such as Peek-a-boo.
  • They still learn through touch and through putting things in their mouths.
  • They need lots of things to touch and to be able to move and explore safely, and also to practise standing and walking.


  • Toddlers are starting to explore 'who they are' and to express themselves. Toddlers are not yet ready to take turns or share successfully and their play needs supervision by an adult.
  • They need toys that allow them to practise large motor skills (pushing and pulling) and fine motor skills (putting things into other things, picking up small things).
  • They need opportunities to practise language, eg. nursery rhymes, talking to parents.
  • Their attention span is short and they need lots of changes of activity.
  • Their world is widening and they like to go on small outings.
  • Sometimes the world can be a bit scary and to help deal with this they may want to keep to their own routines, eg. have the same story every night.
  • They play side by side but not with others. Play near other children needs to be supervised.
  • Try a shared experience of taking children somewhere together to play, eg. park or playground with shared lunch.


  • Preschoolers are beginning to learn to share and take turns and to get much pleasure out of playing with other children. They still need supervision however.
  • They like imaginative play, stories with plays on words, and pretend play with each other.
  • They also like activities which enable them to become expert at moving (running, climbing, riding pedal toys).

School age children

  • Children of school age enjoy playing together, and may play in same sex groups in some cultures.
  • They are learning about 'right' and 'wrong' and enjoy making up and playing games with rules.
  • They are learning lots of new physical skills and like to learn crafts and hobbies and sporting skills.
  • They enjoy exploring physical space.
  • Many enjoy reading if the book is not too difficult. Often they are very happy then adults read them stories that they may not be able to read themselves yet.
  • They enjoy computer skill games and many enjoy fantasy games.

Play and feelings

Play is one of the important ways that young children, who do not have good language skills, can express and work through their feelings.

  • Play is the language of very young children. Play can show you how your child is feeling, eg. if your young child is very aggressive in play towards your baby, you can know that he is telling you that he is upset and angry that the baby seems to be taking his place in your care and love.
  • By playing out situations that have been stressful, children can learn to cope with their feelings. If you provide dolls or puppets, mud, paint and water, children can express their feelings through these.
  • Children who are very distressed and angry may like to play messy games with mud and water.
  • With dolls and puppets children can go over the things that upset them until they feel better about them.
  • Doll and puppet play can also help children to deal with expected events, eg starting school, going to hospital. The puppets or dolls can play through what is going to happen and help the child be more prepared.
  • Games where children can dress up or play as someone powerful (like superman) can help them to cope with feeling powerless and unimportant.
  • As children get older playing games of skill helps them to learn to control their impulses and to be patient. For example children cannot do well at computer games or ball games if they become impatient and do not use all their skills.

Play and relationships

  • From the time when toddlers start to play near others they are learning about relationships.
  • As they get older play teaches children about taking turns, waiting for a turn and sharing.
  • Play helps children learn to negotiate where two children want the same toy, or both want to make the rules for the games.
  • Children learn about being a leader and being a follower in play.
  • They learn about how to ask to join in a game with others.
  • School age children learn about making rules to get on well with others and for their groups.
  • The beginnings of friendships are often built around playing together with others.

How to play with children

Here are some of the best ways to make play with children.

  • Follow the child's lead but make sure the game is safe, don't allow it to get out of control.
  • Play with the child but don't take over, let the child change the game.
  • Listen but don't tell what to do.
  • Talk about what the child is doing and encourage, eg. "It looks like the spaceman wants to rule the world. What are the people going to do?"
  • Allow plenty of time.
  • Allow for experimenting and mistakes.
  • Don't compete with young children; this can discourage them from wanting to play with you.
  • Appreciate and encourage your children's effort, eg. display their works of art.

Play ideas for parents

Here are some suggestions which are especially suitable for parents and children playing together.

  • Read stories and nursery rhymes - an everlasting favourite.
  • Hide and seek - make sure you are easy to find if the child is very young.
  • Go for a walk - listen to different sounds e.g. birds, cars, footsteps, animal noises, find different surfaces to walk on, eg. lawn, gravel, leaves (don't make it all a lesson, just let children enjoy the walk).
  • Gardening (especially digging, watering, playing in puddles!).
  • Helping prepare a meal.
  • Picnics.
  • Swings.
  • Painting with sponges and toothbrushes. Mix paint with a little detergent and use a sponge to make bubbly effects.
  • Songs and dancing together.
  • Pretend play - let the child decide who will play which role and make the rules.
  • Dressing up.
  • Puzzles.
  • Simple card games, eg. snap. Young children need to win more than they lose and need you to let them change the rules sometimes.
  • Kicking and throwing balls.
  • Carpentry.
  • Washing the car.
  • Letting the child help with the housework.
  • Take the child to work with you for a short time.
  • A trip to the shops.
  • Watch a favourite TV show or video together.

Play and toys

Parents often believe that they need to buy young children lots of toys.

  • Some experts believe that too many toys for young children can 'overload' their senses and make it hard for them to find things to do for themselves as they get older.
  • This is especially important, as 'boredom' in adolescence may be linked to excessive playing of computer games and sometimes drug taking.

Toys which allow children to use their own imaginations and create their own games are toys which help them learn to be able to enjoy life as they get older without being bored.

  • Many toys that are bought for children do not have this flexibility and can lead to children playing with them for a while and then wanting more.
  • If they always get more, rather than the chance to explore and enjoy and create, they may be learning that to get more things = happiness!

Some 'toys' which are most valuable to young children are:

  • paper and paint
  • water and sand
  • mud
  • a garden or park to explore
  • pots and pans
  • pegs and containers to put them in
  • wooden spoons
  • wooden blocks
  • sets of animals, toy people and cars
  • animals and insects to watch
  • old clothes to dress up in
  • boxes of all sizes and shapes
  • toys to ride on.

A few toys and resources (such as dress up costumes) that allow children to be creative and that can be rotated from time to time are likely to be of more value to children than large numbers of toys.

Playing with other children is important as they get to preschool age, and play with parents is always important, as well as with grandparents and other special adults.

Technology such as TV, tablets, mobile phones and computers

For children today, TVs, computers, gaming devices, mobile phones and tablets are part of everyday life. Screen technology is a big part of how they learn, socialise and have fun.

There are health risks for children when they spend too much time in front of screens, or use devices inappropriately. Parents can help children stay safe and healthy as they get the most from these technologies. It is important that children develop healthy screen habits early and have a balance of activities in their life.

To read more about this have a look at the Parent Easy Guide Safe technology use developed for Parenting SA. Parenting SA is a partnership of the Department for Education and the Women’s and Children’s Health Network.

Play dough 

  • Some home-made play dough has a lot of salt in it. Even eating small amounts, such as two teaspoons of this play dough, could make an average 2 years old child very ill.
  • Some play doughs and slimes use borax as the preservative, and borax is also poisonous. These play doughs have a very unpleasant taste and most children will spit them out.
  • There are other, safer, play dough recipes. They will not last as long as play dough made with salt does, but they are very easy to make.
  • Commercial play doughs will be safe if they are labelled as safe.

One safer dough is 'stretchy dough'. Use any measure which will make as much as you want, such as a cup, lid, spoon, container.

  • Ingredients:
    • 2 measures of self raising flour
    • 1 measure of cold water
  • Mix this together until it is a stretchy dough.  Add more flour if needed.
  • It can be coloured using food colours
  • Spices can be added for smell.

(recipe from the Playgroup Association of South Australia)

War play

Most children, at some time or other, play games that involve weapons or superhero games.

  • It is especially popular with boys around the age of four to want to be superman or another warlike hero.
  • How you manage this will depend on your own beliefs and feelings, but you need to also think about what it means to your children.

There are two main viewpoints about war play.

  1. Some researchers believe that war play is important to children's development. Children have always played games such as soldiers and cowboys which involve shooting and where there has not been other violence in their lives they have not grown up to be violent. Playing powerful games can give children a sense of power and control at a time in their lives when other things around can make them feel powerless and weak. Children who have been upset by something violent or aggressive can be helped to learn to deal with it by playing about it. (If the play is just copying what they have seen on TV it is less likely to be useful than if it is games they have made up themselves).
  2. Other researchers are concerned that allowing war play says to children that parents think using violence to solve problems is OK. There is also the concern that war play often supports prejudice against some people or groups, eg. the 'baddies' may be from a different race or culture.

 What you can do about war play

  • You can ban war play altogether - but this may run the risk of children doing it anyway and then hiding it from you, so you don't have the opportunity to talk with them about it.
  • You can put limits on it - such as where and when it is played, to make sure that no-one gets hurt and it doesn't interfere with other children's games. You may want to ban bought weapons such as toy guns and allow children to make up their own if they want to. You need to make sure that children understand that it is not real, ie that the "bad" guys in the play are really their friends and playmates.
  • You can allow it and use it to help your child develop creative play and to think about what it means. So when he is playing these games you can ask about what will happen next, how the enemy who is hurt feels, how you could make peace, what will happen after the war etc.
  • If you notice that the play is about particular groups or issues that children have seen on TV you can talk to the children later about the underlying issues and values. It is a good idea to limit exposure of children to violence on TV, especially 'real' violence in news and current affairs programs.
  • You can give children opportunities to make choices and have some power in their own lives.
  • If you are allowing this kind of play, and girls want to join in, they may need help to find a place in the games.
  • Make sure there are opportunities and supports for other kinds of acting out role-playing, eg. being explorers in the jungle, space explorers, mountain climbers, firemen etc.

 Note: If a child who has been through some trauma is playing aggressive games, it is important for her to have the opportunity to express her feelings through play and drawings. As the hurt heals, she will go back to her usual forms of play. If this does not happen, it may be helpful to get help from a counsellor.

Violence within the family is more likely to lead to hurtful aggression.


Music is important for children from the time they are born. Songs and rhythm help young children to relax and feel comforted when they are sad or upset. Songs are also the part of the beginning of learning language and thinking. Dancing and singing to music helps children's development of body awareness, language, understanding of culture and listening. Music can become a way of enjoyment and coping with stress for all of a child's life.

Musical play

Play that helps children enjoy music includes:

  • recorded music that children enjoy
  • simple drums and keyboards
  • bells and triangles and cymbals
  • clapping to nursery rhymes and simple songs
  • shaking instruments that you can make by putting small stones in a plastic bottle and then sealing it well with glue so it cannot come open
  • leis, tutus and scarves for dancing costumes
  • marching and dancing to music
  • singing and singing games.

Playing an instrument

If children have the opportunity to learn to play an instrument, they can get many benefits including the development of motor skills, listening, understanding of symbols and language, understanding of some maths skills, and the pleasure of being able to succeed at a new skill.

What you can do to help children enjoy music

  • Expose your children to music and songs of different kinds and show that you enjoy them. Listen to music and recordings with your children, sing and make music as a family, go to musical entertainment.
  • Have a regular family music time perhaps each week, and make long drives in the car a time for singing.
  • Choose a school where music is considered important.

Learning an instrument

  • Don't start children learning an instrument before they are ready and interested - usually in the lower to middle primary school years. Give them a taste first and then if they say they want to learn make an agreement with them that they will continue for a certain length of time, eg. 6 months to give it a proper try.
  • Support and encourage your children when they are learning an instrument, without making it seem as if they have to do it for you.
  • Have faith that they can do it and show you enjoy their efforts. Spend time listening to the boring parts - practice.
  • Ask your children to give you a lesson on their instrument sometimes - so they are the experts and you the learner.
  • If they do not do well at an exam or test, help them to see that this is not the end but a step along the way and does not mean that they play any less well.
  • Don't compare your child's progress with others. All people learn in their own way and at their own pace. Comparisons can make children feel as if they can't be good enough to please you.
  • If your child is involved in, and enjoys, music or dance that is not done by his school friends he may be teased and need your support to cope with this.


South Australia

For more information and ideas about playing with your child in South Australia, you could contact your local:

  • Child and Family Health centre 1300 733 606.
  • kindergarten
  • playgroup (Playgroup SA Inc. - has books about ideas for play - Phone: 8344 2722 or 1800 171 882 [SA country callers only])
  • kindergym (check with your local council)
  • public library (toy library).
  • Department of Education - Great Start
    Support for parents in building their child's literacy and numeracy skills through everyday activities.


Raising Children Network  has many topics about play with newborns through to older children, such as:  

Recipe from the Playgroup Association of South Australia.  For more information about Playgroup Australia:

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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