Guide to Baby & Toddler Play
If you've ever wondered how you can enhance your baby's or toddler's learning through play, you're not alone!
According to a study from the Education Development Center, "nearly all parents, regardless of income or education level, think it is important to help their young children learn."
No surprise there, right? But when it comes to helping our children learn, it's easier to teach what we know. Do we know how to play? Do we know the best way for our baby or toddler to play? Play is a huge part of how little ones learn, but what does that mean, and are we doing it right? How do we fit play into our daily lives? We had these questions, and we're guessing you might, too. Let's get some answers.
Sensory experiences are the start of baby & toddler play
Babies and toddlers learn through sensory experiences--sounds, bright colors, textures--their senses tell them all kinds of things about their environment. They'll also learn by what seems to be almost an accident.
"The natural way that children learn is through play," says Susan Kishel, Parent Educator at the Family Resource Center in Eau Claire, WI, "...but children will also naturally gravitate toward activities they are developmentally ready for. You don't have to take them by the hand and lead them around the room for them to learn how to walk. They'll do that by themselves."
Play is similar, and it's how babies and toddlers learn naturally. We can enhance their development even more by interacting and playing with them.
Parenting Reality Check: Make Time for Play
Play from a parent's (or other grown-up's) perspective, isn't always easy. The day-to-day puts a lot of pressure on parents, especially in single-earner households, where the parent may struggle to make ends meet and need to work multiple jobs.
There are competing priorities in the limited time at home, too, between helping older children with homework, cooking a healthy meal, managing the house, playing with younger children, and if there's any time left in the day, taking care of yourself.
While Kishel now works for the Family Resource Center, she also used them as a resource raising her own kids and knows first-hand the benefit of having some support for parents raising--and playing with--young children.
"I was a parent who used a Family Resource Center when I had my first baby," says Kishel. "I brought my kids here for years to meet other parents and talk to someone who knew about child development. It was a place where I could ask questions, and it was a really important social outlet."
With all this pressure, it's no wonder we hand our kids a tablet once in a while, just to get a breather. And while we all know that leaving the kids with technology isn't the best idea, there's no shame in it. We're all doing our best. So let's give ourselves a little compassion, and see how we can work play into the day-to-day.
RELATED: How to Become More Playful as an Adult
Making the Most Out of Play with Your Baby or Toddler
Whether you're going about your daily routine and work play into the mix, or setting aside some dedicated playtime, there are a number of ways to play. Again, babies and toddlers learn through sensory experiences, so activities like using stacking cups to fill with water or sand are great! You can also find smelly things around the house and have them try their nose out. (Reminder to use smelly items that are safe like food items, fresh-cut grass, or a stinky sock!)
If you're trying to tackle daily chores or meals, make it a play opportunity for your little one by involving them. Let them experience different colors and textures as you fold laundry, dance with them while running the vacuum, or set their high chair or stool next to the kitchen counter and have them help you count pieces of fruit or crackers.
Preschoolers are going to use their imagination more and engage in pretend play, so encourage them to tell stories about what they're imagining doing (flying an airplane, riding a bus, swimming in the ocean) or dress up in costumes with them.
RELATED: 4 Ways to Encourage Pretend Play
Kishel shared some additional tips with us about how to encourage your child's development: "Children will learn even more if you let the child lead, and talk about what they're doing. Narrate their experiences, which helps build their vocabulary, and shows that what they're doing is interesting and important."
The Right Toys for Meaningful Baby and Toddler Play
Of course, not all play is going to revolve around household or outdoor activities. What about toys?! According to Kishel, some toys are generally better for interaction and development than others. Books, of course, are always a great choice. But also look for toys that have multiple ways to play like the Play & Learn Activity Cube. These toys offer variety and longevity.
"Balls and blocks, for example, offer lots of opportunities for a variety of play at different developmental stages," says Kishel.
Toys with lights and sounds aren't necessarily ideal, as they always do the same thing and can get boring more quickly.
Puzzles are another great option, they offer the ability to teach your toddler about shapes, colors, letters, numbers and more! They also help you kiddo work on fine motor skills while learning how to make the puzzle fit in the correct place. Our 6 puzzle set even comes with a convenient rack for easy and organized storage!
Whatever play activity you do with your child, the key is to give them your attention. Just having you there, listening, confirming, validating, or answering questions is amazing for the child's development and learning.
RELATED: The Importance of Educational Toys on Child Development
About Family Resource Centers
As parents, it can be difficult to reach out for some help, but Family Resource Centers are made exactly for that. They are a gathering place, an information hub, and a place to get assistance when needed. They also offer playgroups, with most services geared around parent/child interaction. To find resources near you, this site provides information on support organizations for Family Resource Centers across the U.S.
More Resources for Parents
- Family Resource Center in Eau Claire, WI - Special Thanks for the Interview!
- Genius of Play Report: How Play Fosters Creativity and Innovative Thinking in Children
- National Association for Education of Young Children
- PBS for Parents
- The Strong National Museum of Play
There is a national organization called the National Family Support Network (which SFTA works very closely with) that works with state agencies who support FRC work in their state. They have a map on their website for key contacts in each state that could be used for people to reach out to as a starting point to learn if their state has their own FRC directory. Here is that information: https://www.nationalfamilysupportnetwork.org/membership