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Focus on fun: Playing with your pre-school aged child

Child playing with car

Covid-19 means many families are spending a lot more time together. This can be positive but can also be challenging in many ways for parents and carers. Knowing how best to stimulate and teach your pre-school aged child can be tough. Finding the time to invest in your child’s learning and development whilst juggling your day-to-day pressures can be very difficult.  

I am well aware of this feeling myself. I am currently training to be a health visitor, with competing demands of work, study, home-life and the ‘mum guilt’ that comes with also trying to stimulate a 4 year old and being mindful of their learning needs.  

Sometimes it’s important to take a step back.  

I think it’s safe to say we take for granted the power of play and some of us may feel we should be formally sat at a table teaching our children how to write or add up. It may sound basic, but play is the most fundamental part of your child’s learning, building on the five areas of development. 

Setting aside time each day to play strengthens your relationship and gives your child more opportunities to learn about the world around them and how things work. Play helps children learn how to share, explore their feelings and emotions and regulate their behaviour. They can enter a world of make-believe and develop curiosity. Play can also develop speech and language and develop your child’s problem-solving skills.  

I feel the importance of play has gotten lost somewhere amidst the pressure for ‘school readiness’ and what parents feel that means. All of the child attributes featured in Parents Guide to School Readiness can be obtained through play 

There has been an abundance of information on the emotional wellbeing of children and how they are coping with the transition from nursery or childminder to life at home every day during this pandemic. You don’t need expensive toys, there are so many activities to explore with your child which can be found on the internet or with a little imagination. The most important thing is to join in and play together. Your child will love spending the time with you and you may find it relaxing too – time to switch off from everything else, fuel their imagination, support their development and emotional wellbeing.  

Through playing youll also assist their school readiness with enjoyment and without the pressure.  

Let's play!

A perfect example of the importance of play on children’s development is with fine motor skills. Developing mark making and writing skills is only possible once the small muscles within the hands and fingers have had the opportunity to strengthen. You can develop these muscles through play such as threading beads onto pipe cleaners or string, making playdough cupcakes and decorating with candles, pebble sorting, finger painting or painting outside with water - for example drawing shapes on the patio or painting the fence. Fine motor skills activities by The Imagination Tree have some great ideas to get you started.  

Try to get lost in imaginative play with your little one. Join in and give direction where required but let them take control in a world full of fantasy! Pretend play is great fun for them and also teaches curiosity, courage and problem solving. You may be able to help your little one express their emotions and even work through some difficulties there are experiencing. Children can experiment with roles to develop their social skills and get lost in teddy bear picnics, animal farms, construction sites and fairy princess lands all whilst practising their language skills.  

Sharing storybooks and reading aloud every day is really important. This can help to improve your emotional connection with your little one and increases their language and listening skills as well as their ability to concentrate. Why not write a short story with your child with a beginning, middle and end, and explore their story-telling skills. You could see if they would like to illustrate it by drawing pictures, or cutting and sticking pictures from magazines too.  

You’ve probably noticed that by being at home a lot more your child has an increased need to let off some steam. Running, jumping, balancing, climbing, throwing, catching and kicking a ball are all really important areas of your child’s development. Try to incorporate at least 60 minutes of moderate-intense physical activity through play every day which is beneficial for both of you. You could even try some yoga together! See Physical activity guidelines for children under 5 years from the NHS for more ideas.

Although you may be put off by the idea of messy play, maybe now is the perfect time with the warm weather to engage in some messy play outside? Your child will love anything they can get their hands into and experiment with such as water, mud, sand, paint, crushed cereal etc. You can explore your food cupboard and the garden for safe products to use. There is no end objective with messy play, it is about stimulating your child’s curiosity and imagination and just letting them explore.   

Simple things such as giving your child a ‘role ie helping to set the table for lunch, can help them to feel important and they love feeling a sense of achievement that they have helped.  

The most important message to get across is: enjoy this extra play time and remember to balance learning with fun and PLAY! 

About the author

Rachel Hughes is a Student Health Visitor