Play is the work of children. When you play with kids, you explore their world and build their brains. Pretending, laughing together, and running (or jumping, crawling, sneaking, and rolling) around are important parts of growth, and they help your children develop social skills, understand language, solve problems, and even practice self control. And of course, playing together strengthens relationships. Remember— There’s always a way to play.
Exploring the world through movement and play is good for young brains, with each new stage of development providing new opportunities to learn and grow. Toddlers might explore by walking or climbing. Young children will explore the playground like scientists—intensely curious about the details of their surroundings. Watch where their curiosity takes them, and follow along for the fun of it!
What you can do
Any time’s a great time to play
For infants, play looks like reaching, grasping, and tummy time. For babies and toddlers, play might be a peek-a-boo session, or tearing apart your kitchen cupboards! Support their discovery of the world around them. Whether it’s hide-and-seek, rolling a ball, building blocks, or something else, you can turn anytime into playtime with a bit of imagination!
Suggested Age Range: 0-1
Vroom Tip #35
When your child makes a sound, turn it into a rhyme. If they say “Eee,” say, “Eee rhymes with WE and we are together.” How many funny poems can you make with the sounds they’re making? It is fun for them and helps them listen to sounds.
Your child is a natural learner. When you watch what they’re doing and follow their lead, you can begin to build their learning by adding your ideas. When they’re responded to, their brain is active, which increases learning.
Vroom Tip #188
As you play at the park, describe what you’re doing and how it feels. “The sun is warm on our faces,” or “The sand is rough on our hands.” Watch where your child looks or points and describe how that feels.
As your child hears and sees new ways to describe the everyday things they experience and how they feel, they’re learning new words and concepts that help them understand their world.
Vroom Tip #685
Out for a walk with your child? Imitate the sounds the passing cars make as you point to them. “Look at that red car! It makes the sound, ‘Vroooom.’ The red car is gone, but here comes a green car, ‘Vrooooom!’ There’s a white one.”
Your voice and your face are your child’s favorite playthings. They love to listen to what you say and look at what you see. As they enjoy the sounds you make, you’re helping them learn to listen carefully and to learn words, long before they’re able to say any words themself.
Suggested Age Range: 1-2
Vroom Tip #194
While you’re at the park with your child, point to things you see and say what they are. “There’s a black bird and he’s flying!” or “The little girl is jumping.” Watch where they’re looking and say what it is.
When you describe what you see or what your child sees, they’re making connections between words and what they mean. Children who know words and what the words mean have a head start on learning.
Vroom Tip #980
Save a leftover diaper or shipping box. Put some safe things inside and invite your child to pull them out. Then close half the top and see what things come out easily and what things are too big and now don’t fit through the opening. Use words to describe what they’re doing.
Your child is using focus and self-control to concentrate and move their body to problem solve and pull things out of the box. Commenting on your child’s efforts teach them new words, and encourages them to keep trying, even when things are hard.
Vroom Tip #952
Make Believe it’s a…
Does your child always want to play with your cell phone, your keys, or your wallet? Encourage them to pretend with their own versions of these things, like an envelope as a wallet or a toilet paper tube as a phone. What pretend play ideas can you come up with together?
Your child imitates what you do because you’re so important to them, and they look to you for information about how the world works. Pretend play can help them learn to control their behavior while also building communication and creative thinking skills.
Suggested Age Range: 2-3
Vroom Tip #54
Smiles and Winks
Smile at your child and wink at them. Repeat it several times, then encourage them to try to copy you. The smile is easy, and their wink, which may be just crinkling their eyes, will make you smile again! Take turns. Count how many smiles and winks you share.
Playing Smiles and Winks may seem simple, but it takes a great deal of skill for your child to pay attention to what you’re doing, remember the rules (first you smile, then wink), and copy what you’re doing. These are important skills for school and life.
Vroom Tip #666
Make a telescope with your hands. Circle your fingers and hold them to your eye and look at your child telling them, “I see you!” Show them how to make their own finger telescope. Take turns looking through the finger telescope and sharing what you see.
This simple game is not only fun, it gives your child the chance to pay attention to their surroundings and think flexibly as they see familiar people and things in a new way. Being flexible is a big part of problem-solving and making the most out of life.
Vroom Tip #204
Up and Over
Ask your child to find an object like a stick or rock and place it on the ground near you. Encourage them to explore different ways of moving over it: Can they jump? Hop over on just one foot? Run and then jump? Take turns jumping with them and talk together about how far you both go.
It takes focus and self-control for your child to manage how their body moves, as well as flexible thinking to come up with different ideas. Fun experiences with math ideas like space and distance help them develop a foundation for learning now and in the future.
Suggested Age Range: 3-4
Vroom Tip #81
Move Like Me
Ask your child to imitate you as you walk, jump, clap, or bend down to touch your toes. Then see if they can do the actions when you just say the words. Challenge them by going fast and slow or adding multiple steps like, “Reach up, turn around, and then jump!”
Your child uses their skills of focus and self control as they try to mimic your words and actions. By changing the speed of the movements, you ask them to think on their feet. They must also use their working memory to keep track of what comes next.
Vroom Tip #210
Encourage your child to try different ways of moving by using their imagination. Say something like, “How would you move if you were walking through rain puddles?” Ask them to act it out, and show them how you would move. Take turns acting out different imaginary situations.
When you encourage your child to pretend and use their imagination, they have the opportunity to make creative connections, an important ability for learning and life. Children learn to pay attention and control their behavior by playing games like this one.
Vroom Tip #198
Still as a Statue
Ask your child to pretend to be a statue and freeze in a pose, like standing on one foot. Try to have them hold this pose as long as possible while you do everything you can to make them laugh and move. Then you can take a turn as the statue and see if they can make you laugh and move!
This game is all about focus and self-control. Your child is concentrating to stay in the statue pose, and learning to tune out distractions so they can achieve a goal. This kind of playful learning helps them develop skills for life.
Suggested Age Range: 4-5
Vroom Tip #11
Make a face that expresses a feeling and ask your child to make a face that expresses the opposite feeling. If you make a happy face, they should make a sad face. Talk about when they remember people making these faces. Then take a selfie together with your goofiest faces!
This game helps your child learn empathy, by practicing to understand the emotions of others, and express their own feelings. It’s an important skill that we use every day as adults!
Vroom Tip #873
Follow the Bouncing Ball
Ask your child to play a game of pretend catch. Imagine you’re holding a ball and throw it to them. Encourage them to throw it back to you. Try making the ball bigger or smaller. Talk with them about what you’re doing: “I’m going to throw it fast! Get ready!”
As you and your child pretend to throw a ball back and forth, you’re sharing the give-and-take of communication.They’re also practicing seeing through another person’s eyes, as they imagine the size and speed of the ball—an ability that is essential in relationships.
Vroom Tip #917
Encourage your child to make a Play Plan before they begin to pretend play. Ask questions about where they are and who they are pretending to be. See if they can come up with what they will do first, next, and after that. Afterward, talk about how the Play Plan worked out.
Coming up with a Play Plan promotes memory, focus, and self-control. Your child is also learning about how to tell stories with a beginning, middle, and end. Learning how to plan and taking steps to follow that plan is an important skill for problem solving in school and in life.
Intentionally playing with your child is one way to strengthen your relationship with them and learn more about their understanding of the world. Through play children develop self-regulation, language, problem solving and social skills. You can find out more about each area of your child’s development by completing a developmental screening from your doctor or child care provider or through Help Me Grow Utah.