Play for preschoolers

Picture this — A large room filled with a few hundred adults at a party. Except instead of what you’d expect – people standing around in groups, chatting, laughing and socialising, each person is standing on their own, saying nothing, for no apparent reason. The room is silent.

It would be weird, right?

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It would be just as strange to walk into a room filled with under-fives who weren’t playing. Playing is to children what talking is to adults. Play is natural, play is important. It’s crucial to children’s development and it’s what they most love to do!

Playing with one another

If you’ve ever despaired about your kids not playing on their own, you’re in good company. I have one child who can easily get lost in his own world with nothing but a hairbrush for entertainment (I’ve literally seen it happen), while another one pesters me over and over again to play with her and never leaves me alone. Some of the best advice I ever received from a family coach is that boredom is good for children. I have to work hard to remind myself that my job is to be their parent, not their entertainment.

If you have more than one child, give them time and space to play with one another. My husband and I have often stood in the kitchen, out of sight of our two kids in the next room winding each other up and seemingly on the verge of World War Three, only for both of them to burst into a fit of giggles the next moment. We’ve learnt to only intervene when they can’t work things out on their own. I learnt the hard way from my big brother, growing up – that if I ignored him rather than argued with him, he’d probably stop it and go away. We learn so much about communication, disagreements, conflict, and negotiation from our siblings, cousins, or other childhood friends.

Set up playdates with other kids in the neighbourhood, playgroups, coffee group, kindy or daycare. Not only will this help keep you from being the entertainment, it’ll also help your children cement the friendships they are developing at those other places.

Make sure you have a clear space for your children to play, even if it’s small, and set up ‘invitations to play’ based on their interests. It can be as simple as arranging some cans of food in a tower with a makeshift ‘bowling ball’ nearby, or putting a comfy bean bag in the corner with some new books. A friend of mine cleared an area in her lounge and set up a car mat with some trucks, diggers and blocks the other night and it gave her an extra half hour the next morning.

Playing on their own 

Here are some of my favourite ideas to get kids playing on their own –

  • Play audiobooks – from the library, Audible, podcasts, or CDs.
  • Crafts and activity books
  • Toy libraries – there’s nothing like a fresh batch of toys to keep kids entertained.
  • Reading – head to the library and get a bag full of new books and set them up on the couch.
  • Playdough

If you don’t have playdough, you can whip up a batch at home with this recipe –

  • 2 cups plain flour
  • 4 tbsps cream of tartar
  • 2 tbsps cooking oil
  • 1 cup salt
  • 2 cups boiling water.
  • a few drops of food colouring.

Mix all together. Knead on a floury bench.

Playing with your kids

Think ahead to when your kids will be teenagers, or far into the future when they’ll be adults – I’m sure you want to have a great relationship with them then. That close relationship starts now. Play is an opportunity to connect with them. I’ve found out so much about my kids by sitting across from them playing on the floor, having a tea party or zooming cars around.

If you’re stuck – try this: Sit down with your pre-schooler and just copy what they’re doing. It’s called mirroring. If they’re building a block tower and smashing it down, build a tower of your own. If they’re flicking that springy thing behind the door over and over again, give it a flick yourself and see where it takes both of you. You’ll be amazed how kids respond when you literally get down to their level. If you like, you can scaffold this by occasionally providing a description of what you see them doing, or make up a story around their activity.

As adults, when we’re stressed and have a never-ending to-do list, playfulness can often be the first thing that goes out the window. When I know my kids want to play with me but I’m not really feeling it, I use a timer. I put the over timer on for 20 minutes, say to the kids something like “when the timer goes off I need to go and make dinner”. This way I’m much more able to be present for that defined period of time.

Think back to when you were a child. What did you like doing? This is the opportunity to relive it! I’ve had so much fun teaching my kids to play ‘crack the egg’ on the trampoline like I used to do with my cousins, and being the troll under the bridge like my dad used to play with me. I remember the thrill of independence that learning to ride a bike gave me as a kid, so we go on bike rides together as a family. Having fun together is so much fun.

Playing together – my favourites

  • Snap
  • Memory game
  • Connect four
  • I spy (in the car). For pre-schoolers, give the word’s beginning sound rather than the letter
  • Role-playing ie. doctors, restaurants, tea parties
  • Dancing around the living room together
  • Rough play – tackles, tickle monster

Less is more

Kids don’t need lots of toys. In fact, in my experience, after I’ve done a cull and given away some of their things, they re-discover what is there and play more. Just like adults, kids like clear spaces and room to play. Invest in play equipment that’s multi-purpose. Wooden blocks, duplo, mega blocks, train sets, playdough and lego are great places to start. These things can be transformed by a child’s imagination into whatever they want (I’ve seen the same pieces of lego be a jet plane, a scary dragon and baby food in the space of an hour), and they also have the bonus money-saving feature that your children don’t grow out of them as fast as more age-specific toys. Better still, use the things you have around your house – pots, boxes, ribbons, plates, pegs and blankets.

Hands up if you love mess

Play can be messy. You might have had to come to terms with the fact that your house now has half-built forts, containers of tipped-over and now-abandoned toys, deflated balloons, glitter, and masses of paper and felt-tip pens with their lids off all over for a good part of the day. Every adult has their own unique level of mess they can tolerate. You may relish the opportunity to let your children’s inner artist grow and have masses of crayons, colouring pencils, stencils, craft equipment and paintbrushes all over your place. Or you may decide your house is a paint-free zone and leave that to their childcare centre.
The rule in our house is, we can be messy during the day, but in the evening, it needs to get tidied away. It’s also a great idea to teach your children to play with one thing at a time, and that when they finish with something, to pack it up.

Remember, play is simple, play is fun, and play is essential. It’s what children do to relax and to grow.
As Lawrence J. Cohen (author of Playful Parenting) puts it, “Kids don’t say “I’ve had a hard day”, they say, “Can you play with me?”.