Playing is Learning

You don't need to stuff your home with toys in order to create an engaging environment for your children or grandchildren.

I was one of those mean moms. Unlike most kids raised in the ’90s, my kids were deprived of cable television and Nintendo. As young kids they exercised their imaginations, playing for hours in ongoing games they called “little things,” which involved lots of small toy animals and Barbies. Another activity my daughters loved when they were preschoolers was a game they called “feeding the dragon”. This involved taking cans from the kitchen pantry and creating a long line of stacked cans throughout the utility room. It kept them occupied for long periods of time, used their imagination, building skills and at the end of the day- clean-up skills!  In the ’90s, dial up internet was still a marvel and cell phones were mostly in the possession of doctors, so it was easier to limit their exposure to technology. They spent every other weekend at their dad’s house, where they had access to Nintendo and cable television, so they weren’t raised in a completely unplugged bubble.

In today’s world it’s unrealistic to think children won’t have exposure to computers, cell phones, tablets, iPads and whatever new technological development is popping up.  The recommendation for children under two is to discourage screen time of any kind, and beyond two, set limits and monitor closely. As with most things in life, moderation is key and balance is the goal. Too much time spent immersed in technology means less time spent in outdoor exercise, reading and play. The business of learning for children is best done through play.

When we think play we think about toys, and now that I’m a grandmother I’m again in the position of selecting toys for a young child. Because my eight-month-old grandson spends about twenty hours a week at my house, I have toys for him at my house, but I have purposely kept it a small and select collection.  When purchasing new toys, I attempt to consider the following elements important in developing a young brain:


Kids thrive with toys that encourage pretend play and stretch their imaginations. For young children these may include items such as dolls, stuffed animals, big plastic vehicles, and dress-up clothes.  I have a trunk full of bridesmaid’s dresses, prom dresses and odds and ends that have provided hours of pretend play. A session of sitting on the kitchen floor playing with pots and pans is free, fits almost all these categories and is so much fun! Water tables, play kitchens and musical toys such as drums and small keyboards are great ideas for older kids.


Blocks never go out of style, do they? For young kids there are big squishy blocks small hands can easily grasp. These blocks won’t hurt them if they fall on them or put them in their mouths, which is inevitable! When kids get past the choking danger stage, LEGOs are great for combining building skills with pretending skills, as long as you are committed to never going barefoot again! Elementary-age kids can learn to use simple tools with supervision. When my daughter was about ten, her grandfather spent an afternoon helping her build a doghouse. The end product was a doghouse, but bonding time with a grandparent was the more important result.


For very young children make sure anything you give them is non-toxic and not a choking hazard because everything is going to go in their mouths. A large sheet of paper and big, washable crayons or markers are great. If you’re ok with a mess, finger painting is a wonderful creative and tactile experience! Play dough also makes a mess but is great for creativity! Cooking can be a pleasant activity to share with grandchildren and fits into two categories, creative and problem solving. Who doesn’t love an afternoon spent baking (and eating) cookies?

Problem solving

This can begin very early with shape sorters and stacking rings.  You don’t even need to buy a toy; let them take cardboard boxes or cans and stack and build. Puzzles teach spatial awareness, are sometimes linked with math abilities and are perfect to help develop problem solving skills.  For elementary age students an abacus is excellent. Learning to count money can be made fun by playing “grocery store”.

 Motor Skills

It all begins with infant tummy time! Most babies don’t love tummy time, but it’s a necessary precursor to rolling, scooting and crawling. Babies need toys that have knobs, wheels and large buttons to push to help develop fine motor skills. As they get a little older, small balls are good for gross motor skills as well as tunnels to crawl through, toys that allow them to pound and hammer (and earplugs for you) and usually around three you can introduce tricycles or other pedal toys for most kids. My husband and I are anxious to create an activity board for Callister when he is about 18 months old. Here are instructions to build this great board for your grandkids!  Add whatever you think would be interesting and useful!

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Play With Them!

I’ve saved the best for last. One of the best activities for your grandchild is time spent playing with you. Most grandparents are in the enviable position of being in the role of being a fun, part-time person in the child’s life. If you think you can get up again, get down on the floor and play with them, climb on the play structures and get your hands messy finger painting with them. My grown children still remember the day their 70-year-old grandmother climbed up on the trampoline and jumped with them. Create happy memories!

Warning- With all toys, make sure there are no small parts that may cause a choking hazard for young children. Check to ensure all paint on toys is lead free. Check to make sure toys don’t have sharp edges or splinters and cannot be shattered. Also, make sure a toy is easily cleaned to prevent spread of germs. Adult supervision is vital in all play that involves water.

Categories: Grand Life