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Play Like a Champion

Updated: Apr 26, 2020

The power of play is underestimated and overlooked far too often in education and even in the home. During early childhood years, nothing is more important. Play is an organic way for children to work through real-life concepts and social norms. It is also used to practice academic content. When given the proper support, a child will strengthen their skills in every single developmental domain during play. This post will serve as a guideline for parents of pre-school age children (birth – 5 years) on how to use play to support healthy development in their little one.

**Disclaimer** If you are a working parent, following the guidelines outlined in this post will be taxing because it is full-time job. Luckily, you have options. Early childhood educators are trained to meet the academic, social/emotional, physical, and language needs of your little one. But, not all childcare facilities are made equal. Find a quality center and be sure to spend quality time with your child on your time off.

However, if you are a homemaker, stay-at-home parent, or whichever title you prefer, this blog is perfect for you! Understand that Rome was not built in a day and your work with your child will not necessarily see instant results. You will have to make adjustments as you learn more about your child’s interests and resources that are available to you. Be patient and take pride in the progress your little one makes. In the classroom, teachers use pre- and post- assessments to measure growth. In an informal setting like the home, I suggest recording your child at play every four to six weeks. This will allow you to see your child’s growth and make adjustments when needed.

There are seven basic principles to using play as a vehicle for learning:

1) Limit Screen Time

2) Increase Face-to-Face Time

3) Take Interest in Their Interest

4) Determine Your Focus

5) Use Appropriate Materials

6) Know When to Stop

7) Seal the Deal

1) Limit Screen Time

Turn off the television, tablet, phone, and even the radio. The American Academy of Pediatrics found that children with excessive screen time at 2 years old could be expected to have lower developmental outcomes at 3 and 5 years old (e.g. delayed speech, poor fine motor skills, shorter attention span etc.) It is recommended that no more than an hour of the day should consist of screen time for children less than 5 years of age.

Even having music playing in the background while playing is not recommended. Of course music is a great tool for learning language and concepts, but when used in isolation, without reinforcers like a teacher, books, or real-life experiences, it has a limited impact. In 2016, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that background noise may hinder toddlers’ ability to learn new words. On our fifth principle, Use Appropriate Materials, we will discuss how music can be used constructively during play.

2) Increase Face-to-Face time

This point cannot be overstated. Quality interaction with another person gives play sustenance. Ideally, children have an array of play partners with varying abilities. A younger peer teaches children important social skills like empathy and instills confidence in the older child as they demonstrate their competence. Likewise, when children have older peers advance skills are modeled for them.

Being an adult, you are one of the most mature playmates you child will ever experience. By participating in play with your child, you are modeling appropriate sentence structure, muscle usage, social responses, and building vocabulary. Plus, I have found that children are always most excited and eager to play when their caregiver joins in the fun.

3) Take Interest in Their Interests

According to the Summit Medical Group, a normal attention span is 3 to 5 minutes per year of a child’s age. However, in my experience, when a child is not interested in the topic or content, the surrounding play will not hold their attention for this suggested time. Exposure is the name of the game when it comes to determining your little one’s interests. Every child is different and, as such, we cannot assume that they will like animals or the circus, dolls or superheroes, swimming or coloring, the playground or the library. However, the child should experience all of these things, and much more. Once you have identified 3-5 of your little one’s interests, you are ready to engage in quality play.

4) Determine Your Focus

Overall, there are two major academic content areas and five overall developmental domains. While there are some activities like project-based learning that address all these areas at once, most play will only hit a handful at a time. When you pre-determine your learning objective, it gives your play purpose and focus.

Content Areas

-Reading: In the early years, reading is developed in the form of pre-literacy skills, which refers to learning that happens prior to actually reading words. You can work on understanding how a book works (e.g. finding the cover, turning the pages, retelling the story, etc.). You can also work on identifying and writing letters, letter sounds, blending sounds, and sight words. Some activities that build pre-literacy skills are hunting for letters in old magazines or making a grocery list.

-Math: Like with reading, pre-numeracy is the precursor of mathematics. Pre-numeracy skills include counting, subitizing, estimating, patterns, spatial reasoning, and measuring with an unconventional unit of measure like paper clips. Some activities that build mathematical skills are stacking blocks, making jewelry, or playing jump rope.

Developmental Domains

-Cognitive: This domain is often what we thing of when we evaluate how children perform in school. The skills in this domain include recall, planning, and problem solving. Activities that can help build this domain are puzzles, board and card games.

-Language: Language refers to how we use and understand verbal and written communication. In my opinion, this domain is the only one that you cannot escape and grows constantly. However, there are certain activities that lend themselves to more robust language skills like reading a book and discussing its contents or singing nursery rhymes.

-Motor Skills: Motor skills are skills performed by the body’s gross motor (large) and fine motor (small) muscles. Personally, I value this domain a great deal and feel as if the fine motor muscles, in particular, are often overlooked in formal and informal learning settings. However, in my professional teaching experience, poorly developed fine motor muscles lead to poor penmanship and work ethic with sloppy, rushed work. Some activities that build motor skills are hanging on the monkey bars, playing a sport, or creating an obstacle course.

-Social: Social development refers to how we understand and respond to others in various situations. Erratic and volatile responds are unwelcomed and make learning hard for children especially in a group or classroom setting. It is important to teach children how to be good citizens through play. Role playing activities like dress-up and playing with dollhouses are great ways to practice social skills.

-Emotional: Emotional development is how we learn to cope with the world’s impact on our minds like how we deal with stress. Social development is heavily dependent on healthy emotional development. If you are emotionally unstable, working with other people is going to be difficult. In a world that often feels uncertain and is ever changing, caregivers have to teach children to work on what they can control, which is how they respond to life’s twists and turns, their emotions. Some activities that work on emotional development are puppet theatre, books and team sports.

5) Use Appropriate Materials

Once you have targeted a handful of learning objectives, you must obtain the proper materials to organically engage your little one in play and exploration. Materials are not always just paper and pencils. Materials refer to anything that enriches the child’s exposure to the content or topic. The environment can serve as a material. A trip to the zoo can build language, reading, and motor skills, but if I wanted to work on math and cognitive skills then at trip to a corn or hay maze would be more appropriate.



As mentioned earlier, music can be used to enhance learning as well. Nursery rhymes are a great way to teach almost all of the content areas and developmental domains. In her book, Reading Magic, Mem Fox describes how children who learn eight nursery rhymes by age four are amongst the top readers by the time they are eight years old. Nursery rhymes and songs are most impactful when they are put in some sort of context for your little one to understand. Acting out the words with dolls and figurines is helpful. Also, building real-life experiences that relate to the words is impactful as well. Right now, my little one is enamored with Baa Baa Black Sheep. I am looking into different sheep farms in the area that I can take her to watch how sheep are shaved and the wool is processed. These real-life connections make the learning that much more meaningful.

Finally, caregivers have to have discernment with traditional materials as well. Not all paper and writing utensils are made equal. Your project with your little one may require a denser paper like cardstock or cardboard. You might want to employ stencils or patterned scissors to make a funky design. Maybe you need acrylic paints that doesn't run or watercolors to capture a mood. And a smock to protect your clothing! Writing utensils are always important. Be sure to remember that small hands require different tools. Egg-shape and broken crayons prevent children from grasping crayons with all five fingers and encourage the three-finger grip recommended by pediatric occupational therapists.

6) Know When to Stop

If your little one has shifted focus or lost interest in the play, then do not fight it. Make an initial attempt to reengage, but do not force him or her to play something that no longer interests them. If your child is consistently losing focus during play and not meeting the attention span guideline outlined in our third point, consult his or her pediatrician. However, more likely than not, they have lost focus for one of three reasons; they are not all that interested in the topic or content, they have outgrown it, or they are tired. Regardless, don’t fight it. Remember play is supposed to be organic learning, not forced.

7) Seal the Deal


All that hard work has to be sealed and stored away in our long-term memory. Sleep does this part of the work for us. As previously stated, sometimes children want to stop playing because they are tired and don’t know how to express it or are determined to fight the urge to sleep. Nap time is very important in the early years because they are learning so much, so quickly that their brains need an opportunity to process, categorize and store the information. Research out of Harvard Medical School suggests that even for adult students, it is recommended that after studying for an exam, one should go to sleep, as oppose to going to work or exercising, to consolidate the learning.


I hope this information is helpful. Remember, what is most important is that you and your little one are having fun :)

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