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Play with babies and toddlers

7-minute read

We all know that playing is fun. It’s also the most effective way for children to learn. By playing, children can practise all the skills they’ll need as they grow up.

To grow and develop, children need time and attention from someone who’s happy to play with them. Gradually, they’ll learn to entertain themselves for some of the time.

It can be hard to find the time to play with your child, especially when there are many other things you need to do. The solution can be to find ways to involve your child in what you're doing, even the housework. Children learn from everything they do and everything that's going on around them.

Get them involved

When you're washing up, let your child join in, for example by washing the saucepan lids. When you cook, show them what you're doing and talk to them as you're working.

Getting them involved in the things you do will teach them about taking turns to help and being independent. They'll also learn by copying what you do.

Sometimes, things have to happen at certain times and it's important that your child learns this. But when you're together, try not to have a strict timetable. Your child is unlikely to fit in with it and you'll both get frustrated. There's no rule that says the washing-up has to be done before you go to the playground, especially if the sun's shining and your child's bursting with energy.

As far as you can, move things around to suit both your and your child's mood.

Tips for playing

  • Get together lots of different things for your child to look at, think about and do.
  • By making what you're doing fun and interesting for your child, you can get your household jobs done while they're learning.
  • Have times when you focus completely on your child. Talk about anything and everything, even the washing-up or what to put on the shopping list. By sharing as much as possible your child will pick up lots of new words.
  • Give your child plenty of opportunities to use their body by running, jumping and climbing, especially if you don't have much room at home.
  • Find other people who can spend time with your child when you really need to focus on something else.

Play ideas and reading

Ideas to help your child play and learn

You can give your child lots of different opportunities to play, and it doesn't need to be difficult or expensive.

  • Look at books and sing songs and nursery rhymes with your child. It's fun and will help them develop language and communication skills.
  • Use things that you've already got around the house. Try some of the ideas below.
  • Get involved yourself. Your child will learn more from you than they will from any toy.

Any age

Playing with water 

Babies, toddlers and young children love playing with water, in the bath, paddling pool or just using the sink or a plastic bowl.

Use plastic bottles for pouring and squirting each other, plastic tubing, a sponge, a colander, straws, a funnel, spoons and anything else that's unbreakable.

You’ll probably both get wet, so cover your clothes. Never leave a young child alone with water. A baby or young child can drown in only 5cm (2 inches) of water.

Reading

You can start looking at books with your baby from an early age. It will help them with their future learning. The time spent sharing books with your baby also allows you to bond with them and is good for emotional wellbeing.

Even before babies learn to speak, they will enjoy hearing you read to them. Listening to you will give them a feel for the sounds, rhythms and rhymes of language. Even small babies like looking at picture books.

Local libraries usually have a good range of children's books. Some run story sessions for young children. Even if it's for only 10 minutes a day, looking at books with your child will help them build important skills and encourage their interest in reading.

From 4 months

Rattles

Wash out a plastic screw-top bottle and put dried lentils or beans inside. Shake it around in front of your child and they will learn how to make a noise with it. 

As some dried beans are poisonous and young children can choke on small objects, it's best to glue the top securely so that it won't come off.

From 18 months

Play dough

You can make your own play dough. Put 1 cup of water, 1 cup of plain flour, 2 tablespoons of cream of tartar, half a cup of salt, 1 tablespoon of cooking oil and some food colouring in a saucepan.

Stir over a medium heat until it forms a dough. Once the dough has cooled down, show your child how to make different shapes. Keep it in a plastic box in the fridge so you can use it again.

Pretend cooking

Use a bowl and spoons to measure small quantities of 'real' ingredients (flour, lentils, rice, sugar, custard powder). You and your child can mix them up with water in bowls or egg cups. 

Drawing and painting

Use crayons, felt tips or powder paint. You can make powder paint thicker by adding washing-up liquid as well as water.

At first, show your child how to hold the crayon or paintbrush. If you don't have paper, you can use the insides of cereal boxes or old envelopes that have been cut open.

Paper bag or envelope puppets 

Use old paper bags and envelopes to make hand puppets. Draw faces on them or stick things on to make your own characters. Get the puppets to 'talk' to each other or to you and your child.

Walking

Encourage your child to walk with you as soon as they can (hold hands, or even use 'reins' for safety). It might slow you down, but it's a great way for both of you to get some exercise.

From 24 months

Dressing up

Collect old hats, bags, gloves, scarves, nighties, lengths of material, tea towels and curtains. Ask friends and relatives or try jumble sales.

Make sure there are no loose cords, strings or ribbons that could wrap around your child's neck or trip them (or you) up.

Paper plates or cut-up cereal packets make good masks. Cut slits for the eyes and attach them to your face with string.

From 30 months

Junk modelling 

Collect cardboard boxes, cartons, yoghurt pots, milk bottle tops and anything else you can think of. Buy children’s glue (the type that comes with a brush is easiest to use) and help them to make whatever they like.

Toy safety

Injuries from toys can be caused by:

  • choking, inhaling or swallowing small objects
  • crushing fingers and other parts of the body
  • cuts from metal blades or sharp plastics
  • damage to eyes from sharp objects
  • strangulation from loose cords or wire loops

Australian Standards for toys have been developed to protect children. Look for these on labels to assess possible hazards and suitability for your child's age and stage:

  • AS/NZ ISO 8124 Parts 1-7: Safety of Toys — deals with small parts, sharp points and edges, flammability of toys, moving parts and toxicity of toys.
  • AS 1900–1991, Flotation toys and swimming aids for children — deals with flotation aids and swimming toys.

Take care when buying secondhand toys or toys from market stalls as they may not meet safety standards and could be dangerous.

Toys usually have age warnings on them. If a toy is marked as ‘Not suitable for children under 36 months’, don’t give it to a baby or toddler under 3 years. Check toys for sharp edges or small parts that your child could swallow.

For more information visit Product Safety Australia.

Toys for children with special needs

Toys for children with special needs should match their developmental age and ability. Ideally, they should be brightly coloured, make a noise and have some moving parts.

If your child is using a toy intended for a younger age group, make sure that it's strong enough and won't get broken.

Children with a visual impairment will need toys with different textures to explore with their hands and mouth.

Children with impaired hearing will need toys to stimulate language, such as puzzles that involve matching 'finger-spelled' letters to appropriate pictures.

Screen time

The Department of Health has released guidelines on young children watching television, DVDs and computer games.

The guidelines recommend that children younger than 2 years of age do not spend any time watching television or using other electronic media (DVDs, computer and other electronic games). For those aged 2 years, the guidelines say sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour.

For healthy development, children need regular activity and plenty of interaction with others.

For more information visit National Physical Activity Recommendations for Children 0-5 Years.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: September 2018


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