Skip to main content

Parent’s guide to learning through play

Add to My Shortlist
baby on floor with toys

When babies are first born, their brains are still developing. The more you sooth, talk, touch and play with them, the more their brain will make connections and develop.

When you are calm, and you hold your baby close to you, your baby will feel calm. That relaxed feeling will fill their body with chemicals that will help their brain grow.

Your child’s brain will grow better if you play with them. When you pull a face at your baby, they will copy you. Connections in their brain make links that will help them understand communication and feelings.

When you play counting games or sing action songs, your baby’s brain builds connections that make it possible for them to think, plan, make sense of the world and develop social skills.

Best start through play

Make time to cuddle your child every day. Your child will benefit from the warmth, love and affection that you are giving them, and this will help them to relax and calm down.

Make time to read books to your child every day. Looking at books together helps babies to focus their eyes, to concentrate and start to think in a logical way. As you read books and talk about the pictures, your baby will develop their understanding and over time will learn new words. This will give them a good start for learning how to read when they are older.

Sing songs and rhymes every day. Babies will eventually start to try and copy the sounds you are making and will enjoy being close to you and watching your facial expressions. As children get older, they will begin to repeat the words within the songs, and this will increase their vocabulary.

When you are playing with your baby or child, have them close to you or get down on the floor or at the same level as them, this will help them to see your face, copy your expressions and follow what you are doing.

Join in with your child’s game, letting them take the lead. This gives them confidence and lets them know that their ideas are important.

Babies and children love being outside as it is full of interesting, exciting things for them to look at, touch and feel. They will get the chance to interact with other children and have space to move freely.

Children love being physical. Placing babies on a soft blanket on the floor will help them to build the strength in their muscles, that will enable them to first roll over, then to sit unaided and finally to crawl and then walk. As children get older, making time to play in the garden or at local parks will enable them to develop their hand and eye co-ordination and learn how to run and climb.

Children’s language develops when you talk to them all the time. Tell them about what you are doing, where you are going and what you are seeing.

Songs and Rhymes

Birth to 11 months of age

Repeat songs and rhymes over and over again, this will help your baby’s brain to make connections. Look closely at your baby when you are singing to them. They will respond to your familiar voice. When you sing to your baby notice how they gently move their arms and legs or change facial expressions. Songs and rhymes will help them to feel soothed, comforted, safe and loved.

You can sing to your baby at any time, at nappy changing time or to help them fall asleep. As your baby gets older notice how they listen to familiar sounds, words and songs. They will start to respond to a familiar song they have heard over and over. They will start to make sounds back to you when you talk and sing to them. As they get older they will make babbling sounds such as ‘baba’, ‘nono’ and ‘gogo’.

8 to 20 months of age

Your child will start to move their whole body to the music, beats and songs they enjoy. If they hear a song that they have heard before, you will know they are enjoying it because they will smile, rock their body and clap their hands. They will now start to imitate the words and sounds you sing to them and will start to join in with actions such as finding their nose when singing ‘Head and Shoulders’, or laying down when you sing ‘Sleeping Bunnies’

When babies find their voice, you will start to respond by singing, talking and smiling with them as they move their body.

Babies and toddlers will also start to show a preference for particular songs, banging and clapping as you both join in with the songs.

16 to 26 months of age

Your child will now have favourite songs that they will want you to sing again and again! Singing is helping them to learn lots of new words, and they are beginning to follow more of the actions. They will listen to and enjoy rhymes and show this by trying to join in with the words.

They will enjoy it when you begin to sing songs differently, making them faster, slower, louder or softer, or use different voices. They love it when you let them have musical instruments when you are singing, so that they can shake, tap and bang along to the rhythm.

They will copy some familiar song words and they will move to music and songs.

22 to 36 months of age

Your child will continue to have favourite songs that they want you to sing again and again, but they also love learning new songs. This will help them to learn lots of new words and develop their understanding. They are interested in playing with different sounds they can make with their voice, and will enjoy singing louder, faster or quietly.

Song time is fun, it helps your child to join in with other children, and to widen social contacts and share feelings. Musical instruments and the way they sound are exciting and they will enjoy changing tempo and shaking instruments loudly when the song has a strong beat.

Learning lots of new songs helps with your child’s development as does repeating familiar words and phrases from songs all the time. Your child will start to fill in the missing words of songs they know, such as ‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a ……’ Song time is even more fun when you use puppets and toys.

Storytime,books and imagination

Birth to 11 months of age

Your child will listen to and respond to the sound of your voice. They know the voices of those closest to them, such as mummy, daddy, brothers and sisters.

They enjoy listening to familiar sounds and words. The more you talk and sing to them, or repeat phrases over and over again, the more they will understand and respond.

They will turn their head in response to sounds and sights and respond to and thrive on warm, sensitive physical contact such as sitting on your lap to share a story. Feeling safe fills your baby’s body with special chemicals that helps brain growth.

Even though they are very young, your baby will enjoy looking at books and other printed material, so share books with your baby .

8 to 20 months of age

Your child will now show enjoyment and respond to what you say when you share familiar books with them, which have lovely colourful pictures and a few words.

If you point to the things which appear in the book, and use simple, single words to describe them over and over again, they will begin to understand. Soon they will be able to point to things themselves, when you ask them. They will try and copy the words and sounds you make as you read the book to them. They enjoy babbling and experimenting with sounds and words. They may want to chew the book, because they are teething. Your baby will respond if you make lots of sounds and actions. They will handle books and printed material with interest.

16 to 26 months of age

Babies and toddlers love books but will sometimes lose interest half way through. They enjoy listening to and joining in with rhythmic patterns in rhymes and stories such as ‘We’re going on a bear hunt’.

When they enjoy the story, they will move their body, clap and ask you to read the book again. They will begin to turn the pages and sometimes may tear the book by accident. They will be interested in books and will have favourite ones which you can share over and over again. Sharing books before bedtime helps your child to sleep. They will copy familiar expressions such as ‘oh dear’ and ‘uh oh’ and will start to know a few of the words that are repeated throughout the story, if you read to them a lot.

They also enjoy pictures and stories about themselves, their family and other familiar people.

22 to 36 months of age

Concentration gets better at this age and your child will find it easier to listen to books all the way through. They will listen with interest to the noises you make when sharing a story and they will copy you. They can turn the pages in a book and are less likely to tear them now. They are interested in playing with sounds, songs and rhymes that appear in the books you read to them. Talk about the pictures and ask questions about what they can see. Your toddler will start to bring you a book to share and will enjoy choosing new books, if you take them to the library.

They will have favourite stories, rhymes and songs they want to share with you. They can repeat more and more words or phrases from familiar stories and will be able to fill in the missing word or phrase in a story they know well.

By reading to them, you will help them to be able to read on their own when they are older. Making up stories when you are in the car or out for a walk is fun and develops their imagination.

Making a splash with water

Birth to 11 months of age

When your baby smiles at you and you smile back at them they feel happy. When you hold your baby, cuddle them, speak and sing to them, they will react by smiling, looking and moving. They will reach out for, touch and begin to hold objects. They start to show a range of emotions such as pleasure, fear and excitement. They begin to enjoy bath time, comforted by the noise and feel of the water. You can help to sooth them by singing to your baby in the bath.

8 to 20 months of age

Your child will concentrate for short periods on things they really like, such as putting their hands in the water and splashing, or watching you pour the water out of a container. At home they enjoy playing in the bath or touching the water in puddles at the park.

They will hold objects in the water in each hand and pass objects from one hand to the other. They are starting to use a thumb and finger to grasp small objects, such as cups or toys in the water.

You can help with your child’s development by using single words as they play in the bath such as ‘cup’, ‘jug’, ‘splash’.

They also begin to understand ‘yes’, ‘no’ and some boundaries, and will need you to help them play nicely in the water.

16 to 26 months of age

At this age your child will often concentrate for long periods on a task and so won’t hear you when you talk to them. They enjoy filling and emptying containers with water and will do this again and again!

You can start to use some single words, and the more words you use as your child plays in the water, the more words they will learn.

As your child gets older they will begin to put 2 words together, such as ‘more water’, ‘want jug’. They will copy familiar expressions such as ‘all gone’ when you pour the water out of the jug. If you encourage and support them they will be able to put their apron on and help dry their hands. You should also start to encourage your child to share toys in the water.

 22 to 36 months of age

They will concentrate on playing with the water if they are really interested in it or you help to make it fun. They will show increased control in holding and using objects such as jugs for pouring.

Your child will experiment more with the things in the water tray, using them in different ways than when they were younger, for example, squeezing the water from the sponge.

They will use words to interact with their friends and you, sharing their feelings, experiences and thoughts, such as ‘look at the bubbles’ ‘this is a fish’. Your child is beginning to ask a variety of questions – why, where, who, what. If you are playing with them, answer your child’s questions and encourage them to ask more!

They are now showing understanding and will cooperate with some boundaries. They can get their apron if you remind them and will find it easier to share toys in the water.

Your child will start to seek out others to join them at the water tray.

They begin to understand quantities and can use language such as ‘more’, ‘a lot’, ‘big’ ‘small’.  They begin to imitate everyday actions such as using the toys and water to make and drink a cup of tea or making the dolly swim in the water. Bath time is fun and will help your child to calm down at the end of the day.

Sand and messy play

Birth to 11 months of age

Before your baby can enjoy playing in the sand they need to do lots of physical activities such as holding up their head, lying on their tummy and lifting their head, exploring their feet and hands when lying on their back, rolling over and reaching out for objects.

They start to enjoy touching and holding objects, crawling, sitting up and exploring using their hands and mouth in everyday play.

They love to be cuddled and rocked, as this fills their body with chemicals that makes my brain grow.

8 to 20 months of age

Your baby can sit up unsupported and will enjoy feeling sand if you sit them in a sand pit. They may try and eat the sand, but once they place it in their mouth they will quickly realise that it does not taste very nice. They are now crawling or beginning to walk and will enjoy the sensory experience of putting their fingers in wet and dry sand, feeling the different textures.

They will enjoy squeezing damp sand and if you make a sand castle they will begin to reach and tap it. They can pick up small objects using a thumb and fingers and will begin to hold the objects in the sand pit, such as the spade. They love getting messy and using fingers to squash and are interested in the effects of the marks their movements make in the sand. If you use simple words to describe the ‘sand’, ‘bucket’, ‘spade’ this will help develop their understanding.

16 to 26 months of age

The muscles in their hands and fingers are developing. When they play in the sand they explore objects by linking together different approaches, such as shaking, looking, poking and tapping. They really enjoy doing things over and over again and will love knocking down sand castles that you have made, or watching dry sand pouring out of a container.

Your baby still enjoys the sensory experience of putting fingers in sand, but now they are starting to make stronger connections between their movements and what they want to achieve, so you will see them starting to dig the sand or trying to find objects which you have hidden. Your child is  gaining greater control when holding buckets, spades and moulds.

Your child is now using single words to describe objects, and starting to use two words together, such as ‘me dig’ or ‘more sand’.

22 to 36 months of age

Your child will now be using one of their hands more than the other when playing in the sand. They show control in holding and using spades to dig and buckets to build and mould. They can make marks in dry sand if you give them lolly sticks or thin branches and will enjoy seeing you drawing faces or writing their name in the sand. They can imitate drawing simple shapes such as circles and lines in the sand and can distinguish between the different marks you make.

They will start to experiment with the different texture of the sand, and now realise that you need to use damp sand to mould and dry sand to pour. They still love getting messy and will enjoy playing with the sand even more if you start making it more interesting. You can hide shiny gems or farm animals in the sand which they will enjoy finding. You can also put glitter in the sand or make tyre tracks with their toy trucks. The more they can dig and mould in the sand, the more they will develop the muscles in their hands, making it easier for them to begin to write when they are older.

Your child will now be using lots of words and short sentences to tell you how they are playing, and to get other children involved in their play. They may still find it difficult to share resources in the sand pit when other children are there. If you encourage them, they will try and help you to sweep up the sand that has dropped on the floor.

Making marks with crayons,paint and water

Birth to 11 months of age

From birth, connections are building in your child’s brain that will make it possible for your child to control their body more and more.

To be ready to make marks they need to do lots of physical activities such as holding up their head, lying on their tummy and lifting their head, exploring their feet and hands when lying on their back, rolling over and reaching out for objects.

Your baby will enjoy touching and holding objects, crawling, sitting up and exploring using their hands and mouth in everyday play.

8 to 20 months of age

Your child can now sit unsupported and will enjoy feeding themselves yoghurt. They might make a mess but will enjoy seeing the marks they make with the yoghurt. They are now crawling or beginning to walk and will enjoy the sensory experience of putting their fingers in water, paint, sand and paste, seeing the marks they make.

They will enjoy squeezing and touching playdough. They can pick up small objects using a thumb and fingers and can now hold a big pen or crayon using a whole hand grasp to make marks with different strokes. They love getting messy and using fingers to squash and splash. They are beginning to be interested in the marks they leave when they make movements.

16 to 26 months of age

Your child is really developing their muscles in their hands and fingers. They are able to feed themselves some food and will help to wipe their hands and the table. They explore objects by linking together different approaches such as shaking, looking, tasting, mouthing and poking.

They still enjoy the sensory experience of putting their fingers in water, paint, sand and paste, making stronger connections between their movements and the marks they make.

Your child is gaining greater control with pencils, crayons and paintbrushes. The more they make marks, the easier your child will find it to write when they are older.

22 to 36 months of age

Your child will now be using one of their hands more than the other when they make marks and play. They show control in holding and using jugs to pour, hammers to bang, instruments to shake and mark making tools. They are beginning to use three fingers to hold crayons, pencils and brushes. They can imitate drawing simple shapes such as circles and lines. They can distinguish between the different marks they have made and will tell you about their drawing or writing.

They will start to experiment with blocks, colours and marks. They still love getting messy, and enjoy it when you give them glitter, paint and glue to play with at home. They enjoy splashing in puddles and seeing the marks their wet boots make. The more they can practice making marks, the more your child will develop the muscles in their hand, making it easier to begin to write. Give them lots of resources at home to develop the muscles in their hands and fingers, such as puzzles, bricks, water play and dough. Take your child to the park so they can use their hands to climb, as this will develop hand and eye co-ordination.

 

Toys, play and imagination

Birth to 11 months of age

At this age they gain more control over their arm and leg movements. Your child will reach out for, touch and begin to hold objects.

They explore objects by picking them up and putting them in their mouth.

They repeat actions that have an effect, for example, they will kick or hit a mobile or shake a rattle.

As your baby gets older they will reach out and pick up toys.

8 to 20 months of age

Your child will concentrate for short periods on the things they like doing. They have a strong desire to explore and will be interested in things that are familiar to them. For example, they will be interested in farm animals if you take them to the farm.

They can pass a toy from hand to hand and can hold an object in each hand and bang them together. If you use simple words to describe objects that they see, such as train, car, dolly, cat, this will help your child to develop. Your baby will enjoy it if you make the noises of the objects, such as ‘chug’ for train, or ‘miaow’ for cat.

They will imitate actions that you do, such as knocking down a tower of blocks. They will find it easier to play if you sit at the same level as your baby.

16 to 26 months of age

Your toddler will enjoy repeating patterns of play, so will push a car backwards and forwards many times or push the dolly in the buggy for a long time. They like moving things from one place to another, putting them in bags or on the buggy. They begin to use single words to describe the toys they play with, such as ‘dolly’ ‘car’, and can understand simple sentences that you say such as ‘put dolly in bed’. Your child will develop an understanding of how to play with toys if they see you doing something. For example, your child may may begin to ‘talk’ into a play phone.

Your toddler will begin to play alongside children but may find it very hard to share favourite toys.

They are now able to pretend that an object is something else, for example, using a rectangle brick as a phone.

22 to 36 months of age

Your child will now start making choices about how they will play with the toys helping to develop their imagination. You will notice that they are starting to ‘make believe’, using cars, dolls, small figures to act out things they have done before. They will start to use sentences when they play and can tell you what they are doing ‘baby sleeping in buggy’. When you play with them this will help to develop their language and understanding further.

They show control in holding and using toys, pretending to cook dinner or move pretend dinosaurs around the room. You can help them to develop their understanding of numbers by talking about the number of cups or cars they are playing with.

They like repeating movements over and over again, you can help to develop this further by changing the things they play with, for example, giving them sand to make pretend food with. They are starting to use some language about quantities such as ‘more’ or ‘a lot’. You can help their understanding by talking to them about how big or small the toys are that they are playing with and encouraging your child to think about colour or shape – ‘that’s a lovely big red train’. They will experiment with blocks, colours and mark making

Making and building things

Birth to 11 months of age

Your baby’s body works in tune with you. If you are relaxed your baby will feel relaxed too and this will help their brain grow.

At this stage your child is gaining more control over arm and leg movements. They reach out for, touch and begin to hold objects. They explore objects by picking them up and putting them in their mouth. They repeat actions that have an effect, for example, they will kick or hit a mobile or shake a rattle.

As they get older they will reach out to plastic bricks you may have built up and attempt to knock them over.

8 to 20 months of age

Your baby will concentrate for short periods on the things they like doing. They can pass a toy from hand to hand and can hold an object in each hand and bang them together.

They can pick up objects between a thumb and fingers and as they get older they will start trying to place one block on top of another block. They are beginning to recognise big things and little things in a meaningful way. They will enjoy looking for dropped or hidden objects, especially if you make this into a game.

They will imitate actions that you do, such as knocking down a tower of blocks.

16 to 26 months of age

At this age your child may concentrate very hard on tasks and may not hear you when you talk to them. They can play alongside children and begin to enjoy playing with trains and bricks. They enjoy repeated movements, such as pushing and pulling trains and cars. They begin to organise and categorise objects, such as putting all the train track and bricks in separate piles.

They can use blocks to make simple structures and arrangements such as balancing blocks to build a small tower and then knocking them down. They can fit things together, such as putting the lid on the teapot and find it easier now to make things and to move toys the way they want to.

22 to 36 months of age

Your toddler is interested in others’ play and is starting to join in. They enjoy making choices about how they will play with the resources, and this is helping to develop their imagination. They will begin to use cars, trains and resources to act out things they have done before. They will start to develop an understanding of simple concepts – big/little, high/low, and hard/soft, especially if you talk to them about the shape and size of the resources as you make things together. You can help them to choose the right shape to build and make, for example, suggesting a circle shape for a wheel. They will also develop an awareness of colour, if you tell them about the colours of the things they are playing with.

Your child will show control in holding and using objects such as putting the train track together or completing a simple puzzle. You can help them to develop early maths skills by counting out how many blocks they have. Talking to your child about what they are making will develop language skills. You may notice that they begin to use one hand more than another when building and making things.

They will start to use some language about quantities such as ‘more’ or ‘a lot’. They will start to use talk about size such as ‘big’, ‘little’ and ‘huge’. They will begin to sort objects according to their size or shape. They will enjoy playing with small world toys such as the train track or farm and will experiment with blocks, colours and mark making.