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Playing with your child

5-minute read

Why is play important for children?

Play is one of the main ways children learn about themselves and other people. Play also encourages children to use their imagination and find their own solutions to little problems.

It’s important that children have the opportunity to practice new skills through their play. Forming strong connections in their brain is helped by having fun during play and being exposed to lots of different activities.

The best type of play is unstructured, or child led. Often, young children need their parent’s help to get started with play activities, though are best left to their own decision making once they’re organised. Knowing when to offer help and when to step back is a skill parents develop over time.

Play also helps children to:

  • feel happy, secure and safe
  • to exercise and keep within a healthy weight range
  • build gross and fine motor skills
  • develop social skills in language and communication
  • learn how their body works and what they can do
  • learn about the natural world and the environment

What are the best ways to play with my child?

Provide different types of play for your child. Remember, it’s important they have time for free, unstructured play where they get to decide what they want to do and make up their own mind.

5 top tips for playing with your child

  1. Just be yourself and aim to have fun with your child. Remember, spending time with them and having fun will help them to feel loved. It’s not just the play which is valuable, it’s your presence as well which will have a positive effect.
  2. Look for simple games which don’t require a lot of money or planning. Use things around the house that are safe for your child to play with.
  3. Don’t focus on the educational outcome of a play activity. Incidental learning happens without planning.
  4. Demonstrate sharing and taking turns. Your child will learn about empathy and feelings from you. Most young children are egocentric and believe the world revolves around them. Your behaviour towards them and others will help your child learn other people have feelings too.
  5. Know when your child has had enough of a particular activity and needs a break. Play should be fun, not a chore, so support them when they’re showing they’re not interested anymore.

What is unstructured play?

Unstructured play is when the child decides what they want to play and when.

Some examples of unstructured play include:

  • providing painting, drawing and ‘craft’ activities and leaving the child to manage themselves
  • a dress up corner with a variety of tops, scarves, hats and pants
  • outdoor play equipment which is child safe and accessible
  • a toy box with age-appropriate toys
  • cubbies made from large boxes, or a sheet draped over a table

What is structured play?

Structured play is when an adult directs a child’s play.

Some examples of structured play include:

  • swimming classes, playgroup, library story time
  • reading and looking at books together
  • dance, music or drama classes
  • board games played with others
  • puzzles and sorting games

What types of play are good for my child?

Aim to balance your child’s inside and outside play with structured and unstructured activities. There will be times when you need to get creative about where to go and what they can do, especially if you’re stuck inside.

Try not to let the weather control your outings. A raincoat and puddle boots for a child can make all the difference between having a quiet day inside or a pretty special (wet) day and physical day outside.

When is the best time to play with my child?

Anytime you’re both motivated to spend time with each other is fine for play. As a parent, you’ll have lots of demands on your time, but it’s worth looking for time each day just for fun.

Some children seem to struggle with playing on their own and want a parent to ‘always’ play with them. Setting up an activity and getting them started can help. Give them encouraging messages that they’re doing well on their own.

How can I play safely with my child?

You need to provide a safe home and environment for your child and don’t expect them to understand what is a risk. There are a range of hazards in most homes which can lead to injuries, ranging from falls to poisoning, drowning and electrocution.

It’s impossible to remove every potential hazard from our homes. However, restricting a child’s access to dangers is a priority.

How can I keep my child safe?

  • Always supervise your child.
  • Identify hazards and remove them. If this isn’t possible, guard against hazards with barriers, such as safety gates.
  • Make changes immediately and isolate or remove anything which is dangerous.
  • Do a home safety checklist. Make changes for a safer home before accidents happen.

Should my child watch tv?

For children under 2 years of age, any kind of screen time, whether it’s a television, smartphone, tablet or a computer, can be bad for their development. Children aged 2 to 5 years should have less than 1 hour of screen time per day. This includes games on your phone and watching TV. This ensures that children get the right balance of physical activity and other activities that promote learning and social skills.

Read more about screen time for kids.

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

Last reviewed: April 2022

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