Why play is important
Play teaches children to think and discover how things work – through touching, feeling, moving things around, and by trying things themselves.
Play helps them:
- develop social skills
- develop language and communication skills
- learn about caring for others
- build confidence
- build physical skills
- feel happy and safe.
Types of play
Play is a great way for you to have fun with your tamariki. It’s important they see you having fun too! Free, unstructured play (play that just happens when something attracts your toddler’s interest) is the best kind of play for young children. It lets them move at their own pace, letting their imagination guide them.
They might play alone or alongside others. Sometimes they’ll want you to play with you, other times they’ll be happy for you to watch while they play and help them when they need help. They’ll always love you delighting them as they play.
Structured play, or organised play, happens at a certain time at a certain place. It’s really fun as well, and includes things like:
- story time at the library
- water play/swimming lessons
- toddler playgroups
- music or dance classes
- junior sport activities.
Our tamariki are surrounded by rapidly changing technology. In 1970 children started watching TV at around four years old, and now many children are watching screens – TVs, computers, tablets, and smartphones – from four months old, or even younger.
But children need certain things to develop in healthy ways.
- Children need loving, interested adults interacting with them and involving them in their day.
- They need physical activity, and social and play time with friends and whānau.
- They also need quiet time – they don’t need to be busy and entertained all the time.
Children learn through relationships and experiences. When their relationships are positive (if imperfect) and their experiences are rich and interesting, they’re laying strong foundations for many different areas of their development. Rich and interesting experiences can be as simple as holding your hand while watching the wind blow in the trees, helping in the kitchen, or splashing in a puddle – these experiences all involve the senses and involve the body in the three-dimensional world.
Two-dimensional screens don’t offer the same sensory experience and human interaction.
The Ministry of Health and the World Health Organisation recommend:
- children under two shouldn't spend time in front of screens
- less than an hour each day for children aged between two and five years.
How screens can affect children
- Technology use can impact babies and young children through poorer quality and quantity of sleep.
- Studies have found that the longer pēpi and toddlers spend using handheld devices, the more likely they are to have language delays.
- Wellbeing and behaviour
- If your young child is watching something intended for older children, they may find it scary and become fearful and anxious. Babies and toddlers need support from adults to understand what they’re seeing – they can’t tell fantasy apart from reality.
- Using technology to distract babies and toddlers when they’re feeling big emotions like anger and frustration can be effective, but if it’s used too often your children may not know how to deal with those emotions as they get older. When parents support their tamariki with their feelings, they’re building their relationship and helping their children learn to deal with their emotions.
- The more tamariki use screens when they’re little, the more difficulty they have turning them off as they get older.
If your tamariki do watch screens, make sure it's good quality age-appropriate content.
Your toddler might enjoy:
- making music with spoons, kitchen pots and pans of different shapes and sizes – loud but fun. This helps with coordination, listening skills, and lets them explore music and rhythm.
- boxes – big and small - have lots of different uses. They can become a house, a hut or a cave, or they could be a car or a train. They can also be stacked and pushed over without hurting anyone. Imaginative play helps children develop important psychological and emotional capacities that help them understand the world around them and their place in it. It provides opportunities for them to work out problems and experiment with solutions. Stacking boxes encourages them to build and helps their hand-eye coordination.
- soft blow-up balls can encourage them to crawl, walk, kick, or run.
- sand and water play with buckets and shovel - touching, splashing, digging, pouring, scooping and more. It helps them develop their fine motor skills, and it’s super fun. Never leave your child unattended around water though, not even for a minute, because children can drown in as little as 4cm of water.
Emotions and play
Between one and two years of age, the number of words toddlers use explodes, and so can their frustration as they struggle to make themselves understood or to find the right words to let you know what they want.
At this age they don’t have the words to express big emotions they’re feeling – like frustration – and playing is a great way to help them express their feelings and practise managing them.
When you’re playing with them, you can also help them recognise and label what they’re feeling and why. If they’re sad because a toy broke, you can give that feeling a name for them, saying something like “I can see you’re sad that your toy broke. It’s alright though, we can fix it.”
You can help them practise expressing and managing their feelings through:
- banging on pots or drums - a great way to express anger or frustration
- singing and dancing, or action songs like “if you’re happy and you know it clap your hands”
- playing and sharing with other children
- messy play with mud or paints – your toddler can happily splash or stomp in mud, or paint big angry brush strokes
- reading stories with characters whose feelings will be familiar to your toddler – “he sounds frustrated, doesn’t he?”
- playing outdoors where they can toddle, run, roll or tumble to let out their emotions. Physical activity is great not only for expressing emotions, but also for their general wellbeing, as well as developing social and physical skills. A safe environment that encourages your child to explore and develop skills like rolling, sitting up, reaching, rolling, crawling, pulling up and walking is great
- modelling the behaviour you want to see in them. If you get angry, tell them “I’m feeling a bit angry now. I’ll be back in a minute when I’m feeling more calm,” and leave them in a safe place while you manage your own emotions. There’s no such thing as a perfect parent – we all get it wrong sometimes, but we can make it better. It’s good for children to see that we, and they, can do this too.