Playful learning Ideas from zero to five years olds
Before we start jumping into play ideas for our children, let us quickly understand how baby’s brain develops first 3 months which are the most vigorous brain developing period.
How your baby’s brain develops from birth to first three months?
At birth, your baby’s brain is only a third of the size it will be in adulthood. During their first three months, it will grow rapidly (by 64 percent!), reaching 55 percent of adult brain size by the time they are only three months old.
The baby’s brain also has at birth all the neurons it will ever have; what it does not have, are the connections between them, or we call ‘synapses’. The first three months see a period of massive synaptic growth which continues throughout the first year; some scientists also call this period as a “synaptic big bang”.
During this period, the environment the baby lives in and the type of care they receive is big part of their brain development.
The part of the brain responsible for movements, co-ordination and balance – is the fastest-growing area of the baby’s brain, doubling in size in the first three months. This is why we see the rapid progress of movement related skills in newborn babies.
The second-fastest growing part of brain is responsible for learning and making memories – which grows 47 percent in the first three months and reflects the massive amount of learning that a newborn does. Everything around them is new to them and the level of daily learning about their surroundings, their own body’s abilities and also their relationship with parent (it is you) is simply astounding.
Their positive interactions with you and the world around them influence your baby’s brain to form new neural connections, or synapses, and the more time you spend with them, the more their brain will grow and develop.
And, the best way to interact with your baby is through play. This is why countless child psychologists and therapists are emphasize hand on play with babies.
Okay, we now understood how baby’s brain works during first three months.
Let us jumping into great play ideas for babies from birth to three months.
0 to 3 Months
Play Ideas for babies from birth to three months
Play is the primary tool for development and learning at all ages, including the newborn babies.
Play helps to build relationships, to feel connected to parent or care givers.
Suggested play activities at first 3 months;
- Singing and Dancing together
- Making silly faces and sounds
- Counting their fingers and toes
And, you don’t need to spend a lot of time but baby only need very short bursts of play between ten to fifteen minutes at a time.
- Hanging objects that they can look at and eventually reach for, such as mobiles and if it is made of natural material with vivid colour, it would be even better.
- A soft floor mat that allows them to move their body freely without being in a crib or pram.
- A blanket or fabric with different textures for your baby to feel.
3 to 6 Months
Play ideas for babies from three to six months
You are the main source of learning and entertainment for your baby. Your action, words and interaction with them are powerful stimulant to your baby.
They are starting to recognise humour in this age, so funny faces, noises or gestures will be well received.
Main focus in this age group would be introducing specific play ideas and toys that help to encourage your baby’s physical development and exploration of objects through touch, sight and sound.
- A rattle or similar noise-making toys. Move it around your baby’s face to attract their attention and help them to grab and move it to make a noise. This will help their hand-eye co-ordination.
- Soft Balls – a bright coloured soft ball or cotton balls that are small enough for them to grab and move from hand to hand. This improves their co-ordination and fine motor skills.
- Toys with large buttons that they can press to make something pop up, light up or make a noise. It does not have to be fancy. Two or three buttons are plenty for them.
- Fabric or textured baby books, featuring bright colours and illustrations. It will help babies to learn how to pick up and hold a page.
NOTE: Please remember that babies put everything in their mouths in this age, so please make sure that any toy your baby has is big enough so cannot be swallowed easily.
6 to 9 Months
Play ideas for babies from six to nine months
You are still the main source of learning and entertainment for your baby. They will laugh when you make funny faces and noises, or when you dance with your baby. In this age, they are becoming more interested in books so great timing to introduce simple picture-oriented story books.
Please note that babies learn by repetition, and you will notice this in their play. When they drop a block and you pick it up, they will drop it again, again and again. This repeated play is not only a great way of entertainment, but it also means that they are learning, too.
Don’t be worried about repetition in play. They love it every time they repeat.
The best toys for six to nine months olds focus on their growing interest in manipulating the world around and develop their fine motor skills:
- Wooden building blocks that they can bang together or stack to make bigger towers
- Toys with buttons they can press to create various sounds.
- Board books with pictures of everyday objects to help expand their vocabulary and point to pictures of the words as you say them.
- Waterproof books to practise turning pages at bath time and withstand babies’ chewing.
If you do not have space or funds, do not despair. Babies are incredibly interested in everyday objects at this age. A simple kitchen whisk, a wooden spoon and old handbag and some interesting textured fabric can be a good toy to play with, too.
9 to 12 Months
Play ideas for babies from nine to twelve months
Play at this age is ideally focused on developing both gross motor skills and fine motor skills. Look for activities that encourage movement, such as dancing as well as stacking blocks.
They often enjoy games such as ‘peek-a-boo’ or searching for hidden objects such as hiding a ball under a container.
This is also a great age to let them get messy with their play and explore their senses through play.
Babies in this age prefer simple toys that they can manipulate in many different ways. Here are some top toy recommendations:
- Wooden blocks – for banging together and sorting into different colours, as well as stacking
- Dolls or puppets – particularly for hiding and playing pee-a-boo with
- Various Shapes of blocks and manipulative – good for fine motor skills
- Simple musical instruments, such as a xylophone for banging or maracas for shaking
- Board books to build on both your baby’s literacy skills and their fine motor skills.
- Wooden activity cubes – these are great for fine motor skills while they enjoy the many different activities on them.
At this stage, your baby will probably also like to imitate you and your everyday activities such as talking on the phone or washing dishes.
If you do have everyday objects you are thinking of throwing away, check if they are safe for your baby to use and play with. It can be a good toy they can enjoy playing with, too.
12 to 18 Months
Play ideas for twelve to eighteen months
Play during these months will focus on developing fine motor skills. Children are likely to enjoy opening and closing, carrying and stacking things, turning pages of books and exploring their environment.
By observing baby’s interests, parent will be able to find play activities that entertain them for the longest periods of time. The most popular ones at this age are those that are open-ended (i.e. don’t have a limited number of functions) and mirror the real world.
- Puzzles – Wooden puzzles with a few piece are likely to be of interest now, especially the shape-sorter type.
- Animal flashcards and matching animal toys – Matching the toy with the animal picture is a popular activity.
- Finger and hand painting – This is an ideal age to introduce painting – Forget the brushes and going straight for making patterns with their hands and fingers will provide a brilliant sensory experience for them.
- Russian-doll-type toys – Your child will enjoy unpacking and putting back the pieces together again.
- Stacking rings – these can be stacked on the holder, can be rolled along the floor, they can be sorted by colour.
18 to 24 Months
Play Ideas for eighteen to twenty-four months
As your child continue to develop gross motor skills as well as fine motor skills, there are so many new play ideas and toys to choose from. This is also an ideal age to improve your child’s imagination and to engage in make believe and ‘small-world play’ with puppets or dolls.
Small-world play involves using toys to act real-life scenarios and stories from books.
For example, your child might love to play with toy animals and act a scene from a zoo or a farm they have recently visited, or create a scene around your house or neighbourhood.
Small-world play is wonderful not only for your toddler’s imagination, but also for developing their fine motor skills.
- Ride-on toys : At this age toddlers will be interested in ride-on toys, such as mini scooters and cars. These also help them with gross motor skills and movement co-ordination.
- Threading : A super productive activity to practise fine motor skills.
- Make believe : Many toddlers enjoy make-believe items, such as puppets and dolls, using them to act based on their favourite stories or mimic your actions.
- Building blocks : Many toddlers of this age are fascinated with building blocks, from wooden shapes and blocks. Try use wooden version instead of plastic for environment.
- Peg boards : These are great for toddlers’ little fingers to practise fine motor skills by putting pegs in the holes and make interesting patterns.
- Jigsaw puzzles : Go for either solid wooden puzzle pieces or large board puzzles that will survive rough handling.
- Arts and crafts : This is a great age to introduce more craft equipment, such as Play-Doh, crayons and water based paint.
Two to Three Years
Play Ideas for two to three years
Play preferences for this age focus heavily on activities that involve various types of actions. Based on these understanding, parent or care givers can create many playful ideas that will entertain your toddlers.
To Connect : Create a road map on a piece of paper for your toddler to drive a miniature car or train or even horse over. Or use wooden building blocks laid out in a line to form a train track to push a train toy along.
To Contain : Use any bag or cardboard box for your toddler to pack their toys into and decorate the bag or box for their favourite toys. This will be also great way to build a good habit of cleaning up after play in early age.
To Envelope : Use a blanket to create a fort for them or their favourite doll to hide in.
To Rotate : Use anything that has wheels and let your toddler to spin. It is also great idea to play with the hands of a wooden time-teaching clock and learn how to read time, too.
To Traject : Go out and let your toddler to throw a ball and see how a ball moves in the air. In summer, they would enjoy throwing water balloons with you and dodging the water which will be super fun summer activities.
To Transform : Use Playdoh or even a mix of cornflour and water – it feels wet and sticky when they put their fingers into it, but they come out dry and clean. Let your toddler to create whatever they like and see how a playdoh transform various shapes for themselves.
The following are popular toys for two to three years:
- Wooden building blocks
- Wooden train sets
- Toy cars, trucks and transporters
- Baby dolls
- Toy kitchen
- Threading buttons and chunky beads
3 to 4 Years
Play ideas for three to four years – Fewer toys are better
It can be tempting to provide the newest toy you have found through advertising and thinking your pre-schooler may enjoy, but toys are one area of childhood where less is definitely more; the more children have, the more likely they are to get bored easily and does not appreciate what they currently have.
As children grow, the overprovision of toys can do adverse on their imaginations. Research has found that reducing number of toys from children results in becoming not only more creative, but more social, too.
What can this research tell us as parents and carers? Firstly, it’s a good idea to thin out the toy supply, removing ones that are barely or rarely played with to encourage better play and more imagination. It is definitely better to keep open ended toys so it can be used limitless ways and avoid one that has only one way of using.
Next is the idea of rotating toys. It’s a good idea to put some toys away in a cupboard for a month or two to make them fresh.
Again, less is more when it comes to toys, choosing them carefully for your pre-schooler is important, to get the most value, both in terms of play and outlay. These are some of the most popular toys for this age range:
- Wooden blocks in various shapes.
- Wooden train sets
- Toy cars, trucks and transporters
- A doll’s house and figures
- Model-making equipment, such as play dough or kinetic sand
- A first bike or a scooter
- A first paint set
Note: many of these are the same toys as for two-to three-year-olds. Classic wooden open-ended toys can last for many years. 😊
4 to 5 Years
Play ideas for four to five years
Your four- to five-year-old child will spend a lot more time sitting in a classroom when they start school, so it is essential to let them as much free movement and activity as possible when they are at home.
Spending time playing in nature, whatever the weather permits. Encourage them running, jumping, climbing, dancing and riding a bike are also important for your four- to five-year-old.
This is a good time for your child to start to learn a musical instrument, too. This isn’t about creating a future musician, but appreciating music itself, so instead of strict formal lessons, encourage fun and appreciation instead.
Imaginative play comes into fruition during this period, fully embracing magical thinking. Creating a fantasy box that contains various cards, board games or comic or picture books whatever that can trigger their imaginations would be a great idea.
Create dress-up box that contains various old fabrics, clothes so they can do dress-up costumes is another fantastic idea. This will be a great way to ignite their imagination and can be also great drama practices.
Toy selections at this age focus on maturing fine motor skills, creative thinking and increasing social skills. Here are some good choices:
- A children’s kitchen set – with a child-sized child-safe knife and various kitchen utensils, so they can help you in the kitchen and practice cooking in a safe way.
- Dressing-up outfits – to trigger their imagination and feed into their creative thinking.
- Multiplayer board games – to promote taking turns, and also working together to achieve a goal. It is better to choose games that can do team play so whole team wins instead of one player.
- Jigsaw puzzles – children would be able to handle jigsaw puzzles with around fifty pieces at this age.
- A box containing a various interesting ‘loose parts’ – for children to create their own play.
Even though your child is getting older and more independent, their favourite play partner is still you!
The most enjoyable and beneficial way to entertain them is by playing with them.
Physical play with adults helps a child to deepen connection with parents, achieve their need for attention, improves their gross motor skills and improves their self-esteem.
Research has also shown that children who regularly play with their parents or care givers are less aggressive, better friendships at school and do better academically than those children who do not.
Now we covered playful ideas and recommended toys from age 0 to five years. We sincerely hope you do enjoy the journey of playing with your baby and help him/her to achieve their full potential.
Happy playing and learning.
(Reference: Beginnings – Sarah Ockwell-Smith, 2022)