5 Tips for Playing with Your Toddler
As we continue our series on the importance of play, I want you to consider the radical changes going on in a toddler and young child’s brain every day. It’s literally a whole new world for them, Aladdin on the wildest carpet ride imaginable.
While children used their senses as babies (and even in the womb), by the time they are 2 and 3 years old, they start putting together all of that data – what they see and hear and taste and smell and feel – into larger frameworks. They begin to recognize and make sense of patterns. Memories start to encode and last. Language – both hearing and speaking – explodes.
And that’s why the toddler/preschool stage is the sweet spot of development for enriching play.
How Play Gets Deep
Sometimes, play does not get the respect it deserves because it is so… well, playful. But when you recall that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights included “The Right to Play” (Article #24) as an unalienable right, you start to realize how deadly serious it is.
Why? One reason is that play helps your children connect everything they are learning and rehearse that knowledge and insight. For example, putting a baby doll to sleep is not just putting a baby doll to sleep – it’s allowing children to think about the general concepts of caring and nurturing as well as the specific facts of how to use a pillow and blanket.
5 Tips for Playing With Your Toddler and Pre-Schooler
Engaging in play with toddlers and preschoolers is one of the great joys of parenthood. Kids this age are delightful to be with as they explore new ideas and experiences. Here are some suggestions to make playtime even more enriching and fun:
- Pretend… everything! Are you going to the grocery store later? Play grocery store. It may be the thick of winter, but you can pretend swimming in a pool or on a beach. Even driving around town to run errands can be a rich source of pretend – preschoolers love to be drivers of imaginary cars because it makes them feel powerful and act like the grown-ups in their lives. If you’re having difficulty thinking of pretend scenarios, look no further than your child’s favorite picture books.
- In, Out, Up, Down, Under. The “preposition game” is a fun one to play when children start to understand the concepts of “in,” “out,” “up,” “down,” “under,” and “over.” Give them a stuffed animal and a direction: “Put Paddington under the pillow!” or “What happens when Paddington goes in the box? Show me!”
- I Spy. Don’t forget the classics! “I spy with my little eye… something blue!” The beauty of this game is that you can play it in situations where you are waiting – in a doctor’s office, at the airport, standing in line at the post office. If you’re home and are less constrained, you can create an “I Spy” poster or display together: cut out pictures from magazines and glue onto a blank page.
- Use “True” Toys. Toys with batteries, lights and flashy parts may seem better than an empty Kleenex box and a washcloth, but research shows that the simpler the toy, the richer the play. “True” toys like balls, scarves, simple trucks and dolls are more likely to engage the imagination by allowing children to think beyond what they see and create a new reality – rather than follow the prescribed narrative of a Saturday-morning-TV toy.
- Watch, Comment and Ask. More than anything, your attention is what matters the most when you and your child sit down to play together. Watch your child carefully and make comments about what he or she is doing. And then don’t be afraid to ask questions and share suggestions! “I noticed that all of the foods in this bowl are yellow. Do yellow foods taste different from blue ones?”
Bonus Tip: Play with Books!
If you’re all out of ideas about what to play – think books! For example, a game of “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!” (you or your child can take turns being Pigeon) can be just the thing to make a toddler laugh uncontrollably, not to mention learn about self-control and disappointment.
Above all, remember that playing is an important part of how your child is learning to navigate the magical, rich, wide-open world… with your help.