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Teaching Your Child to Play

Play is one way that young children learn. There are 3 kinds of play that your child needs: playing with parents, playing with other children, and playing alone. Here are some ways to help your child learn through play.

Playing with parents

When you play with your child, it helps your child learn to read faces, learn words, and respond to what happens. You can start playing with your baby very early. For example:

  • Play peek-a-boo with your baby.
  • Surprise your child. Make loud slurpy sounds on your baby’s tummy.

As your child gets older, you can start rolling balls to your child, playing with dolls, or taking your child to the park to play on swings or slides. To help your child learn language and still have fun, you can point things out when you walk or drive. For example, "See that big, red, fire truck? The light on the top is red. What else is red?" What you teach should be right for the age of your child.

For school-age children, you might ride a bike with your child, play video games, or play sports such as soccer. Time spent together helps build a strong bond between you and your child.

Model the kind of behavior you expect your child to have. For example, if you would like your child to read more, let her see you reading. Show your child how to help you do things. If the living room needs cleaning up, say, "Let's do this together. This is your room too. Let's get it cleaned up so we can go out for ice cream."

Playing alone

Being able to play by herself helps your child develop self-esteem and confidence. It can also help her learn to stay focused. When your child plays alone, you should check on your child to make sure she is safe.

Teach your child to play by herself for longer and longer periods of time. For toddlers, playing with a toy is a good activity. For older, school-age children, reading or hobbies may be best. Choose activities that your child likes and try to let your child play alone at about the same time each day. Limit total TV and video watching to no more than 1 to 2 hours a day.

At first, your child may only want to play by herself for a very short time (1 to 5 minutes). You can help increase how long your child can stay focused if you make a game of it.

  • Ask your child to play quietly for an amount of time you feel certain she can manage (maybe 5 minutes). Set a timer for that amount of time.
  • At first set the timer for the same amount of time for 3 or 4 days. Slowly increase playtime by a minute every week or two.
  • Give your child brief love pats as often as possible during this time. Reward her but don't distract her.
  • If your child has a tantrum and refuses to play alone, try at a different time. It helps if your child is not hungry or tired when you want to teach her something new.

Playing with other children

Playing with other children teaches your child how to get along with others. Children start playing beside each other around the age of 2 years, but aren’t good at sharing. They actually start playing together between the ages of 4 and 6 years. Here are some ideas to help teach your child to play with others.

  • Call another child's parents and invite their child over to play with your child.
  • Watch the play very closely. Teach rules about no yelling, hitting, or pushing. Praise and hug each child regularly when they are playing nicely.
  • Help your child learn to control her feelings and think of others. For example, if your child is having a hard time waiting for a turn on the slide, talk about it with her. It is more helpful to say something like, "I know you've been waiting a long time and you want a turn, but you'll need to wait until Billy is done. Maybe you can ride the trike while you're waiting." rather than simply saying, "You have to wait until Billy is done."
  • Be prepared to use time-out for any bad behavior, such as not talking nicely to the other child, refusing to share, or refusing to play. During your child's time-outs, play with the other child so that she isn't sitting doing nothing while your child is in time-out.
  • Have these play sessions several times each week.
  • After your child has learned to play well with one child at a time, you can invite more than one child over. You may also want to take your child to a neighborhood playground. Keep watching your child very closely as she plays with others.

Play helps your child learn to solve problems and learn how to share and not always get her own way. Play lets your child see what happens when she takes action. Play can build confidence - and it's fun for your child too.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-06-30
Last reviewed: 2014-06-30
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.
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