Helping Young Children to Play

As promised, here are a few more thoughts regarding how to help young children play.

The number one thing is to know that in order to help your child to play, you need to understand the stages of play development.   Realistic expectations are very important!

From Ages Newborn to Two and  a Half:  Not many toys are needed.  A special doll, (arms and legs are not necessary), wooden spoons, pots and bowls are all lovely, along with baskets to fill and dump.

Barbara Patterson and Pamela Bradley write in “Beyond the Rainbow Bridge:  Nurturing Our Children from Birth to Seven”:  “We may not be able to complete our tasks with a child around, but HOW we do our work is more important than what we accomplish.  If we are only able to do fifteen minutes of concentrated work when a child is present, it will be fifteen minutes well spent.”

Notice there is NOT talk of sacrificing time with your child to do work, but that the work enlivens the life and energy of the child and the household. 

Two and a Half to Five Years:  The first bit of fantasy play emerges around the age of three – so if you are expecting your  two-year-old child to just take off and play a game they make up, this may be unrealistic.  Likewise, if you have a four and a half year old who cannot create any kind of games with toys, then you may need to help them catch up where they should be with play. 

So, around three years of age comes “let’s pretend”.  Reality and fantasy are the same and are not separated.  This is the stage where open ended toys are so important, because the play can shift dramatically from minute to minute and the toys need to keep up!  Baskets of silks, crystals, pinecones and such are all great things for this age group to create with. 

Children of this age generally do NOT share toys well.

Five to Seven Years:  Children are very involved in the creation of the game (which really is the whole game, not so much the end product).  For example, if children of this age are playing restaurant, the play may be all about deciding a menu, “writing” a menu, gathering things, setting up tables, and the “real” restaurant part where people sit down and order and someone plays the waiter may not happen. 

Children of this age enjoy dolls with arms and legs and clothes to dress and undress.  Simple arts and crafts are wonderful as well.  The six-year-old who is going through the six-year-old transformation and is restless and “bored” may  not need more play, but instead practical work until they are ready to  play again.

The notion of practical work brings up an important point.  As always,  start with yourself and what you are modeling for your child to imitate in their play.  This is one reason Waldorf in the Early Years has a great focus on practical work with the hands so your child can see that!  Gardening, knitting, baking, cooking, canning, music, cleaning things by hand, hanging laundry out to dry are all good places to start.

As mentioned, children need less toys than you think, but open ended toys are good.  People get very caught up in buying the silks and expensive wooden toys, but really homemade toys are the best.  There are a number of books regarding toymaking with children, one of my favorites is “Toymaking with Children” by Fraye Jaffke as seen here:  This would be a great book to get to make your children some gifts for the holidays!  You can start now and make some fabulous things!  There are also examples throughout this book showing playspaces that are set up with silks and open-ended toys so you can see how to do this yourself at home!

Create your playspaces close to where you spend your time – if you are in the kitchen, have a playroom near the kitchen or take a corner of your kitchen and have a play corner there. 

Involve your children in your work – your real work where they can contribute and feel as if they played a vital role.  Use singing, warmth, stories to draw your child in rather than commands to “help” which usually causes the child to run the other way!

If you are working and child has “nothing to do” or needs your assistance to start playing again, you can provide  them an opportunity to help you, you can essentially become “the old woman who stirs the soup while the train is coming to town” and provide a framework for play without being completely enmeshed and immersed in the play, or you can stop your own work for a few minutes and help solve the play problem by doing whatever the child is requesting you to do.

In these ways we are close to our children, we exude warmth and love for our children and welcome them with open arms for help with play.  We don’t push them away because we have our own work, but strive to include the child as we can and help the child in their important work, the development of play!



9 thoughts on “Helping Young Children to Play

  1. Do you have any advice on getting rid of unnecessary toys? And how to deal with family that keeps giving unappropriate toy gifts (i.e., plastic, etc.)? Although I always try to keep our son’s (5-year-old) toys to a mininum, especially store-bought toys, he is the only small grandchild and gets way too many gifts. On the other hand, I sometimes feel sorry about getting rid of some of them because he makes up all these stories and really gets into the play…
    Another issue is how to deal with the “wanting” thing? We have no tv at home, but recently he has started with all these “wants” whenever he sees other children with certain toys, etc.
    I don’t know if I have worded this well, but if you could post anything about this toy issue it would be very helpful. Thanks!

    • This comes up a lot; some of it depends on the ages of your children. If they are young it helps to just put things away and either rotate the things or put them away and if they are not missed donate them when the child is not around (if the child is around, any toy is liable to be a favorite even if the toy was not played with for years beforehand). If the children are older, just talking about the home being healthier with less stuff sometimes helps.
      Family members are tricky. Some Waldorf families send out lists of things they approve of, some request “time” gifts or something like that in place of material gifts, some request books. Some families just take the gifts in good spirits and just have the gifts disappear after awhile. Some families let the toy stay at the person’s house so if they go there they can play with the toy there but it is not in the child’s home.
      All possibilities!

  2. Hello,

    I realize this is a fairly old post – but I wonder if you could elaborate on what playing “catch-up” with a 4 1/4 yo who really struggles with settling in to play looks like?

    We have playstands, dolls, tree block, some dress ups and dolly accessories, a small kitchen, some wooden play food… She very very rarely engages in play these days though…

    Hope you have some suggestions, I’m finding how unsettled and unable to sit down and play she is very hard – for both of us!


    • I think the main thing you may have to do is SHOW her – under 7 is an imitative phase, and if there is no one to imitate playing, then it will not just flow out of her. So, you may have to start playing with her and then say, “Okay, I am a dishwasher in the village restaurant” and see if you can move off a bit and do your own work while she plays and you are “part” of the play but not all the play…
      Does that help?

  3. I second this, Carrie! (I’ve been enjoying your site for a few weeks now- thanks for your work!) In some children, the imitative force has not been stimulated strongly and responds to direct example. In our kindergarten of five, there is a three year old who has trouble following the imaginative play of the older students. It’s often very helpful for me to “visit” their house and model pretending for him. Sometimes they will ask me to be the mother, and I discover that all this requires is my background presence in the room, with occasional commentary.

  4. My daughter is 2.9 and will, sometimes, walk over to her kitchen and begin to bustle things around, set the table etc.

    But not always. She is big into gross motor…jumping, running etc so a lot of time is spent in that space (both inside and out)

    But there are some things that help my daughter

    1. keeping it tidy — table clean, fridge stocked neatly with food

    Clutter def. overwhelms my girl –takes after her father LOL

    2. dolly in high chair – this is important. She has no siblings and doesn’t “know” how to imitate dolly care…but having the dolly in the chair reminds her to play. This will change soon, as I am expecting.

    She was going to a natural waldorf inspired child care and the woman had an infant (her son), but that didn’t work out…so now she is home with a nanny and my husband and I on different days

    3. I have to learn to keep my mouth shut! This is tremendously hard for me. I’m a gemini and am an outgoing and outspoken, boistrous person. But when she is involved with her play (whatever it is), I need to still myself as I don’t want to interject and “destory” the moment for her.

    hmmm…I think I’ll blog about this too LOL

    • Jennifer – Thank you for linking to me on your blog! Also, check out the posts on “Stop Talking” and “No Comment”….right along the lines of your thoughts here..

  5. I see in the section on 2 to 4 year olds that it says that they do not share toys well. I have a 4 year old and 2 year old little girls and they really seem to be having that problem lately. Should I stick to only toys that have many of the same like silks and things or should I be helping them figure out how to share what toys we have? I just feel like a big part of my day right now is breaking up fights about toys!

    • Susan, I would limit the toys and involve them in practical work and being outside. Sharing things outside is much easier than inside typically.
      This phase will pass! I promise!
      Many blessings and thank you for reading,

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