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Learning through play

How play helps your child develop mentally and physically, learn new skills and become more social and independent.

Play helps children to develop and learn.

Playing with your child lets them know you love them. It lets them know they're important and they're fun to be around.

You can build a strong relationship with your child through playing with them. This can help their long-term mental health in a positive way.

Making time for play

Play sessions don't need to be long to be useful. But if you are struggling to find time to play together, you can spend time with your child in other ways.

You could let them help you with household chores, such as cooking and cleaning. Learning to help you complete tasks can improve your child’s concentration.

Spending time with you will also help their development. It is better than playing with an electronic device or watching television.

Related topic

Screen time and young children

Books and audio books can also improve your child’s concentration. They can help to encourage learning.

You can get a range of free books and audio books at your local library.

Play routine

A play routine is a planned play session that follows a sequence of activities.

When making a play routine you should consider:

  • how long you plan to play
  • what skills you want to develop
  • making it fun
  • making it child-led (for older children)

Play routines should be repetitive. This gives children the opportunity to practice new skills.

By planning ahead you can let your child know when playtime will end. Children like to be able to finish their game, rather than stopping suddenly.

Finish your play routine by encouraging your child to tidy up, so that they know when playtime is over.

How to play with your child

Here are ways you can play with your baby and toddler as they grow:

0 to 3 months

You can play with your baby by:

  • cuddling, touching, singing and talking to them
  • taking off their nappy - so they can kick their legs and develop their muscles
  • putting them on the floor for 'tummy time' - this will encourage them to move
  • having a colourful toy in the cot such as a 'cot mobile' - when your baby wakes they will see bright colours and moving toys

3 to 6 months

You can play with your baby by:

  • increasing tummy time for a little longer each day
  • having toys in a variety of colours, textures and shapes, including bath toys
  • bouncing them on your knee
  • singing to them
  • talking and reading to them

6 to 12 months

You can play with your baby by:

  • using exciting toys such as blocks or toys with wheels or mirrors
  • talking and reading to them
  • drawing
  • making and listening to music
  • dancing to educational songs - for example, songs that name body parts
  • praising them and giving them attention
  • making faces - your child will try to copy you
  • guiding them to a standing position
  • guiding and moving them to a seated position

1 to 1 and a half years

If your child isn't walking, you can play with them by:

  • helping them to stand supported by you
  • helping them take steps around furniture supported by you
  • holding their hands while they take steps

If your child is walking, you can play with them by:

  • playing hide and seek, or hiding an object for them - like a treasure hunt
  • gently rolling or throwing a soft ball towards them
  • chasing them
  • building things together
  • doing activities that help keep them steady on their feet

Children usually play by themselves more often at this age. It's good to let them play alone sometimes and watch them from a safe distance.

1 and a half to 2 years

You can play with your child by:

  • teaching them simple sports like football - this will help them learn to balance
  • pushing them on a tricycle
  • encouraging them to pedal their tricycle or push off their feet
  • making a game out of everyday activities like washing and drying their hands

You can stop your child becoming overstimulated or bored by only giving them a few toys at a time. Keeping toys in different boxes can also be useful.

Development through play

Children experience different types of development through play, for example:

  • physical development
  • intellectual development
  • social development

Physical development

During play, children will learn to move, balance and lift things.

This helps them develop the fundamental movement skills(PDF, 529kb, 1 page) that will help them stay active in later life.

As children get older, physical play will also help them to stay healthy and active.

It also strengthens their bones and muscles.

Read more in the Active Play 0-3 booklet from the HSE(PDF, 578kb, 10 pages).

Intellectual development

Play helps children develop their memory, thinking and reasoning skills. During play, children between 2 and 3 years old will learn how to:

  • use their imagination
  • count
  • tell the difference between different shapes and sizes

Social development

Play helps children to develop their own identity and become more independent.

Through play, children also learn how to make friends and care for people. For example, playing with dolls can help your child to understand and care about other people’s needs.

Stimulate your child's senses

Stimulating your child’s senses during play can encourage learning and development.

Children learn through play, using:

  • sight - seeing colours, movement, sizes and textures
  • smell - familiar smells can comfort your baby
  • sound - for example new noises, music or you reading to them
  • taste
  • touch

All children’s toys should be age appropriate. Young children put things in their mouths to explore textures and tastes 

Help your child develop through play

You can help your child to develop while playing with them, by doing the following:

  • engage with your child’s interests - this lets them know that they are important to you
  • copy how they play - for example if they shake a rattle, you shake a rattle too
  • talk about what they’re doing - for example “you’re pushing the car”
  • be slow and repeat - your child’s brain needs time to learn new skills
  • listen - they will know that you are interested in their ideas, thoughts and feelings

Most importantly, have fun together.

Stages of play

As children get older, the way they interact with other people during play will change. These changes are called “stages of play”.

There are 6 stages of play. They are:

  • unoccupied
  • playing alone
  • onlooker
  • parallel
  • associative
  • cooperative

Each stage is normal. Your child is not different and there is no need to worry if they're not interacting with other children.

Unoccupied

This is when a baby moves for no reason, such as kicking their legs. This is the first sign of play.

You can encourage unoccupied play by letting your child move around. It also helps not to wrap them up while they are awake.

Playing alone

When children play alone, they will explore the world around them. They do this by touching and tasting things. They will also enjoy hearing their own voice.

You can encourage your child to explore by giving them a variety of safe and age appropriate toys.

Onlooker

This is when a child watches other children play, and doesn’t join in. This is the first step in learning to play with others.

Onlooker play is a normal and a healthy part of development.

Parallel

Parallel play is when children play next to each other, but don’t interact. This is a normal part of the learning to play process.

This usually happens between 2 and 3 years old.

You should not force children to play together. This will come with time.

Associative

Associative play is when children play together, but have different ideas and goals. For example - talking to each other and playing with the same toys, but doing different things.

This usually happens between 3 and 5 years old.

You can encourage associative play by taking your child to a playgroup.

Cooperative

Cooperative play is when children start working together towards a common goal. For instance, building a block tower. This helps your child to develop social skills.

This usually happens between 4 and 6 years old.

Types of play

Children learn and develop through different types of play.

Physical play

Physical play can include dancing or ball games. This will help your child build their muscles, bones and physical skills.

You should encourage your child to move as much as possible.

Social play

By playing with others, children learn how to take turns, cooperate and share. This also helps them to develop their language skills.

You can encourage social play by taking your child to playgrounds. Parent and toddler groups can also help them meet other children.

Constructive play

Constructive play allows children to experiment with drawing, music and building things.

This helps them to develop their movement skills and become less clumsy. Constructive play also helps children to understand distance and size. An example of this could be if objects are small or far away.

You should encourage your child to do arts and crafts and play with building blocks.

Let your child work problems out for themselves during constructive play. This is important. It is better than trying to show them the “right way” to do something.

Fantasy play

Using their imagination during play is good for your child’s communication skills. It is good for them to create their own games.

You can encourage your child to develop their imagination by giving them props. These could be things such as a whisk and bowl if they are pretending to be a baker.

Dress up costumes also encourage fantasy play.

Games with rules

Games with rules can teach children about fairness.

You can play simple games like “Simon says” or “Duck Duck Goose” with younger children.

Board games are also a good way of teaching children about rules, as well as being a fun family activity.

Page last reviewed: 20/11/2018
Next review due: 20/11/2021