Ideas to help your child play and learn
You can give your child lots of different opportunities to play, and it doesn’t need to be difficult or expensive.
- Look at books and sing songs and nursery rhymes with your child. It’s fun and will help them develop language and communication skills.
- Use things that you’ve already got around the house. Try some of the ideas below.
- Get involved yourself. Your child will learn more from you than they will from any toy.
Playing with water
Babies, toddlers and young children love playing with water, in the bath, paddling pool or just using the sink or a plastic bowl.
Use plastic bottles for pouring and squirting each other, plastic tubing, a sponge, a colander, straws, a funnel, spoons and anything else that's unbreakable.
You’ll probably both get wet, so cover your clothes. Never leave a young child alone with water. A baby or young child can drown in only five centimetres (two inches) of water.
You can start looking at books with your baby from an early age. It will help them with their future learning. The time spent sharing books with your baby also allows you to bond with them and is good for emotional wellbeing.
Even before babies learn to speak, they will enjoy hearing you read to them. Listening to you will give them a feel for the sounds, rhythms and rhymes of language. Even small babies like looking at picture books.
Local libraries usually have a good range of children’s books. Some run story sessions for young children. Even if it’s for only 10 minutes a day, looking at books with your child will help them build important skills and encourage their interest in reading.
Bookstart offers free books to children at around eight months, 18 months and three to four years. Packs are available from health visitors, libraries and Early Years settings. They include information on joining your local library.
They also explain how you can get involved in activities at your local children’s centre.
The Booktrust Big Picture is a campaign to promote picture books and how they can support your child’s development. Go to the Big Picture website for free picture book resources, an online illustrator’s gallery and a guide to the best new children’s book illustrators.
The Booktrust website has thousands of children’s book recommendations. You can also contact Booktrust on 020 8516 2977.
From four months
Wash out a plastic screw-top bottle and put dried lentils or beans inside. Shake it around in front of your child and they will learn how to make a noise with it.
As some dried beans are poisonous and young children can choke on small objects, it’s best to glue the top securely so that it won’t come off.
From 18 months
You can make your own play dough. Put one cup of water, one cup of plain flour, two tablespoons of cream of tartar, half a cup of salt, one tablespoon of cooking oil and some food colouring or powder paint in a saucepan.
Stir over a medium heat until it forms a dough. Once the dough has cooled down, show your child how to make different shapes. Keep it in a plastic box in the fridge so you can use it again.
Use a bowl and spoons to measure small quantities of ‘real’ ingredients (flour, lentils, rice, sugar, custard powder). You and your child can mix them up with water in bowls or egg cups.
Drawing and painting
Use crayons, felt tips or powder paint. You can make powder paint thicker by adding washing-up liquid as well as water.
At first, show your child how to hold the crayon or paintbrush. If you don't have paper, you can use the insides of cereal boxes or old envelopes that have been cut open.
Paper bag or envelope puppets
Use old paper bags and envelopes to make hand puppets. Draw faces on them or stick things on to make your own characters. Get the puppets to ‘talk’ to each other or to you and your child.
Encourage your child to walk with you (you may want to use reins for safety) as soon as they can. It might slow you down, but it’s a great way for both of you to get some exercise.
From 24 months
Collect old hats, bags, gloves, scarves, nighties, lengths of material, tea towels and curtains. Ask friends and relatives or try jumble sales.
Make sure there are no loose cords, strings or ribbons that could wrap around your child’s neck or trip them (or you) up.
Paper plates or cut-up cereal packets make good masks. Cut slits for the eyes and attach them to your face with string.
Consider limiting your child’s TV viewing to less than two hours a day from two years old, and ideally no TV viewing before the age of two.
TV can entertain your child and give you a bit of time to do other things. Try not to have it on all the time, though. Always know what your child is watching. When possible, watch with your child so that you can talk together about what you’re watching.
TV is not recommended for children under two years old.
From 30 months
Collect cardboard boxes, cartons, yoghurt pots, milk bottle tops and anything else you can think of. Buy some children’s glue (the type that comes with a brush is easiest to use) and help them to make whatever they like.
When buying toys, look for the British Standard kitemark, lion mark or CE mark, which show that the toy meets safety standards. Take care when buying secondhand toys or toys from market stalls as they may not meet safety standards and could be dangerous.
Toys usually have age warnings on them. If a toy is marked as ‘Not suitable for children under 36 months’, don't give it to a baby or toddler under three. Check toys for sharp edges or small parts that your child could swallow.
Toys for children with special needs
Toys for children with special needs should match their developmental age and ability. Ideally, they should be brightly coloured, make a noise and have some moving parts.
If your child is using a toy intended for a younger age group, make sure that it’s strong enough and won’t get broken.
Children with a visual impairment will need toys with different textures to explore with their hands and mouth.
Children with impaired hearing will need toys to stimulate language, such as puzzles that involve matching ‘finger-spelled’ letters to appropriate pictures.
For more advice, visit the Council for Disabled Children website.