5 Ways to Build Play Skills with Babies + Toddlers
How do children learn to play happily and independently for hours on their own?
Are some children just born knowing or do some parents get gifted a magic play wand around the age of 3?
The answers to the second questions are mostly no and no. Some children do have difficulty learning to play on their own, but for the most part play is something you practice like anything else. Children that practice playing with a range of materials from an early age and more likely to develop strong play skills when they are preschoolers.
Play in the Infant and Toddler years is building the foundation for play in Preschool and beyond. There is a natural progression to play. Educators often talk about Solitary Play and then Parallel Play and so on. As long as young children have some toys to play with they tend to develop basic play skills.
But what do you do today with your infant or toddler to build their play skills?
How can you help them become children capable of independent play?
Children who spend hours engrossed in their imaginative play?
Children who are solving problems, answering questions, and learning through their play?
There are some things you can do to help and here are 5 of the easiest and most helpful ways to build play skills.
5 Ways to Build Play Skills with Infants and Toddlers
Infants and Toddlers are my absolute favorite. Don't get me wrong, my four year olds are sweet kids, but I love babies and toddlers.
They are curious about the absolute most basic elements of our world. The light that comes through the window. The fabric on the couch cushions. The noises they hear in the kitchen. The people's faces who are nearby. They are arranging the world in their minds through exploration and play. It is fascinating to watch.
So how do you help these tiny ones learn to play on their own, with other kids, or for long periods of time? My 5 simple tricks are below.
1. Quality Open Ended Materials
I wrote a guest post for my pal Kara a while ago about Simple Materials for Infants because I think we tend to overthink what we put in children's environments.
Everyone always jokes that toddlers don't want the gifts at Christmas, they want the boxes and the bows. Everyone laughs because we have all seen this, but rarely do we turn around and put a box in their playroom.
The younger the child the more simple the materials should be in their environment.
Babies want to bang blocks and crumple paper. They want to look in the mirror.
Toddlers want to put things in and out. They want to try on hats and carry around purses.
Put simply, they want to explore.
If the toy in their playroom has only one purpose - Part A fits in Part B and then a noise happens - they will get bored. Fast. If they get bored then they will want you to entertain them.
So what do you do instead?
You give them open ended materials.
You put together simple baskets of loose parts (for example, a basket of items you find in the kitchen or a basket of hard and soft things). You give them cars and trains to drive and babies to care for with blankets and bottles.
You watch what they are interested in and put more of that in their environment. When they start dumping things you give them different sized containers and objects to fill and dump, fill and dump to their heart's content.
When they start walking you add things they can push around toys in and bags they can stuff full of items and carry.
And rotate the materials frequently.
2. Time & Space to Play
This is one of the most important steps and not the easiest. Give them time and space to play.
Give them time and space to play.
Time: Find long pockets (Long being relative of course. Long for a baby is 10 minutes) of time when your child is happy, fed, burped, changed, awake, etc to play. Aim for at least twice a day. If you let them practice when they are happy and their needs have all been met they will be more successful and when they are successful play is a happy thing. When it is a happy thing they will do more of it.
Space: I know how tempting it is to help them when they are frustrated. I know how tempting it is to spend every moment holding them and cuddling them. I know how tempting it is to fill every moment with some sort of teaching "lesson" about colors or animal sounds. I get it. I really do.
I'm not saying never do anything of those things.
Teach them to say or sign help and jump in when they need it. Hold and snuggle your children often. By all means label colors sometimes. But most of the time, let them be. Let them play.
Occupy yourself with something that can be easily interrupted. Dust in the next room. Fold some clothes on the couch while they play on the floor. Drink a cup of tea or coffee. (Yes, even with an infant this is possible for VERY short bursts of time. I did this with twins. I promise you can too!). Know that they will need you and you will likely be interrupted so that this won't be stressful or irritating when it happens, but just be near while giving them space.
3. Real Life Experiences
If you spend much time on my blog you are probably sick of me talking about Real Life Experiences. Our Read and Plays always have the added GO element, I talk about it on the blog portion constantly, and I share a lot of field trip ideas. I even wrote a Field Guide to help you take more little adventures. I obviously think this is important. I believe children learn so much through experiences.
Children's play is one of the ways that they process their world. The world that they see every day. If this is limited to the four walls of their playroom there is a limit to the play they will do. If they have never seen a horse or construction site or bus their ability to play about it is limited. Furthermore, their desire to do so is probably more limited.
What can you do?
Take a walk.
Involve your child more when you run errands.
Show them how things work.
Let them "cook" or "do laundry" or "garden" nearby while you are working on things.
4. Model Play Skills
I do realize that I just finished telling you to get out of their way and let them play. There is a time for that - lots of time - but there is also a time to play with them or alongside them and model.
Adults (or older siblings) are great for scaffolding. It is a fancy word educators use to mean helping children reach the next, more complex step. It is a way of breaking something down into parts.
For example, if they are pretending to eat pretend food you could play nearby and make yourself something in the oven and then eat it. By adding the baking something step you make their play just a little more complex.
When do you step in?
This is a little hard to judge if I am being honest, but I tend to step in when they are in a rut.
Repetition is good but if they are playing the same thing day after day after day step in and show them how to make it a little more complicated or give them a slightly different direction to head. They might ignore you and that is okay.
I have found though that my kids are more receptive if I play near them and talk out loud about what I'm doing rather than tell them what to do.
My son has a serious love of trains, so he spends hours putting together tracks and driving trains around and around. One day I made a short train, put some cargo (small pieces of paper) at one spot on the track and then drove my train over to pick up the "cargo." This led to cranes put magnetic cargo into cars and more stations to drop things off and maps for where the trains should go....you get the idea.
5. Value Their Play
Value THEIR play.
I do not understand why my children adore Rapunzel or Paw Patrol. I did not get why dumping was a fascinating activity after the first one hundred times or how a ball of yarn could be endlessly fascinating.
I do not have to understand.
I do understand that by accepting their ideas they are more eager to share them.
I understand that by respecting their right to choose what they play and learn about I am empowering them.
I understand they are more invested in what they are playing and more motivated to learn.
And that is what matters.
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