Unlock Your Child's Potential: The Essential Guide to Cognitive Growth Through Play

Play is learning to learn! by Michelle McHale “According to research conducted in homes, the two most powerful factors related to cognitive development during infancy and the preschool years are the availability of play materials and the quality of the mother’s involvement with the child.” 1 Play is how a child makes sense of their world, who they are and how they participate in their life. Playfulness makes children and adults feel happier too! In fact, play is essential for children to master new social skills, to experiment in problem-solving, to develop fairness and collaboration and to explore the imagination through imaginative play which starts around the age of 2. Play even enhances the attention span and ability to think effectively. If we can follow the giggles of children in play we can often learn what they might feel fearful of and role-play is excellent for helping children revisit past experiences or explore the future. We can also learn how much we can trust their innate understanding of their own physicality. Here are some some ideas of low-cost/free ideas for fun play – enjoy!
  • A selection of wooden bricks can be used for so many games at all ages – children can make houses, boats, stables for toy horses, garages for toy cars, towers, ramps, roads…the list is endless and playing with blocks promotes language development.
  • A bag of different colour, texture and length of ribbons makes for an excellent inspiration for all manner of games – as does a box of material scraps for dressing up dolls, as play bandages etc.
  • Waft a big sheet (you’ll need another pair of hands!) over children who are tumbling about on the floor or on bed and listen to the giggles!
  • Turn a mealtime into a restaurant and have your toddler serve the food, water, placemats and bowls.
  • The cutting tools designed for Playdoh are fun but not essential – there are plenty of household objects that are great to use such as cutlery, pegs, cork stoppers, toy cars, rulers, round wooden bricks, icing nozzles etc. Silicone cup cake moulds are lovely for making Playdoh cupcakes!
  • Tempera paints are inexpensive and water-based – if you have a glass door it’s fun to paint on the glass and super easy to wash off.
  • Line up a few big flower pots full of topsoil/compost and add a few little spades, spoons or cups and let your child dig, build, burrow and scoop.
  • If you’re having trouble reducing the amount of screen-time for your pre-schooler consider switching to read-along stories (CBeebies bedtime stories and many more on YouTube) rather than other TV programmes and follow up with a book-reading session.
  • In hot weather, freeze a block of ice (maybe with something in the middle like a toy soldier or flower) and have fun bashing it or feeling it melt! You could also cover the block with coarse salt and drip coloured water onto it for a magical colour-infused icy artwork!
  • Stretch a roll of white paper outside and put paint in plastic tubs so the children can stand in them and then run across the paper.
  • Offer your little one a round-headed clean paint brush and a pot of water so they can daub anything they can leave a mark on such as a pathway, garden shed, fence or wall. No mess to clean up and the evidence dries quickly! It’s also a fun way to write words and draw shapes!
  • Use washing up liquid to make masses of bubbles. Skim the bubbles off the water and pile them up on a play table with lots of empty pots, scoops and spoons to create a lovely sensory experience that seems messy but isn’t! If you don’t mind more mess, offer glitter shakers or paint to add to the mix!
  • Use plastic pots to make and freeze ice blocks. Even more fun is to make them with colour using frozen juices (carrot makes a great orange and beetroot makes purple!). Once frozen these are great fun for building with, licking and smashing into pieces to nibble on! Supervise with very young children of course!
  • For children interested in letters, help them spell their name outside using a combination of twigs, pebbles, leaves and grass etc.
  • Using a small duvet or strong blanket with two adults holding each end, allow your toddler to lay in the middle of the duvet/blanket and take them for a ride as if they are on a magic carpet!
  • For empathy games check out Feeleez. For co-operative boardgames (rather than competitive!) check out games such as Max.
  • Blow up balloons (but not very much) and draw on different expressive faces for some role-play fun – great for creativity, turn-taking and listening.
  • Corn flour it is great fun for all ages. By adding water you can get great different consistencies, (for 2 years plus let them add the water themselves) and if it gets eaten it shouldn’t be a disaster. It’s easy to clean up and cheap to buy. You can add food colouring and flavouring for added sensory benefits and it covers all areas of child development – adults love it too!
  • A cheaper and fun alternative to bath time toys are a set of 3 stacking funnels (plastic or silicone) along with a long spouted plastic jug! Open ended play, small to store and they have a practical use when the children have outgrown them! When playing shop or kitchens with your little ones, try using real fruit and veg instead of toy ones. Great for real life exploration and especially good for fussy eaters who might actually nibble on some of these items!
  • If you are awake and out of bed on a dark morning with an early-rising, wide-awake toddler, a fun game is exploring the house, lights off, with a torch and going on ‘treasure hunts’ for glow-in-the-dark stars!
The next time you don’t feel playful but your child invites you into play, it may help to remember that play is great for adults too – these positive emotions enhance your health, decrease stress and boost your immune system! Best of all, it nurtures your connection with your child who knows that play is exactly what he needs to thrive – enjoy! 1 Play in Children’s Development, Health and Well-Being, J. Goldstein, 2012 Books Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen The Art of Roughhousing by Anthony DeBenedet and Lawrence Cohen Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood by Jean Piaget