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Children’s play needs and preferences

Play is best for children, however, at every stage of development, they have their own preferences, kinds of play, and toys. Children as an individual also have their personal preferences.

0-1 years old

Babies answer to touch, to sounds, to bright colours and to movement. They discover the world first with their mouths, and then with their hands and feet and play with anything within range. They soon copy smiles and other facial expressions and play with sounds. And then, they start learning how to talk.

The best toys encourage repetition as rattles, musical instruments, busy-boxes. They also like blocks, balls and all objects that they can put in their mouth.

In this stage, children like to play alone exploring the toys and environment. They can’t understand about sharing toys for this reason they usually play by themselves.

1-3 years old

They start walking and they want to explore everything. They enjoy activities to make them physically busy as climbing, running and sliding. They love water, sand and mud. They begin using their imaginations. They learn to say “No!” and may be persistent and have temper explosions when they feel unsatisfied.

They play with repetitive movements and they enjoy play alone until around 2 years old, they still don’t understand sharing toys. 2-3 years old, they start parallel play.

Favourite toys are cause-and-effect features, as push buttons and make a sound. Pull cords and another thing happen. They also like more realistic toys as a car with real car colour, doll as a real baby per example.

3-5 years old

At this age children often have a best friend and learn the social skills and they can play with several children together. They start to understand what does mean sharing toys. They usually don’t like to share, but they can share.

They can have an “imaginary play” and it permits them to discover and explore the world. They can create a hospital or a police station in their imagination. They start playing as doctor and patient, teacher and student, mom and daughter, etc.

They develop speech skills, physical agility and small muscle coordination. Parallel and after cooperative play.

Gender concept

There are some stereotypic ideas as car is for boys and dolls for girls, some girls will choose not to play with some “boys toys” and some boys will choose not to play with “girls toy”, however this stereotypic can’t exist in the setting. Boys and girls have the same right to play with any toys they want. There is not a problem, if a boy wants to wear a princess costume and a girl wants to play with Batman.

“Recognizing when gender concept is preventing children from taking up play and therefore learning opportunities is important so that alternative activities can be provided”


Children, from 3 years old, start to make friends and have a best friend, which is very important for them. From this age, they may choose plays, games and activities according their friends and best friend. They also can leave an activity or game because their friend left.

Describing benefits of:

  • Physical play: it develops a strong heart, lungs, bones and muscles. It helps sleeping and building appetite. It helps to prevent diabetes and cancer in the future. it is trough physical movements that children use their energy and develop muscles, control over their body (balance) and motor skills. The physical activities can also increase a mental wellbeing, self-confidence and self-esteem. Cognitively, helps explore and learn from environment and develops spatial awareness. Language is developed according the type of activity and age, but it usually used to organise the play. Emotional, helps children with sense of achievement, gives them confidence and provides outlet for emotions. Social skills are developed depending play opportunity, it may encourage children to play as a team.

  • Creative play: it is about expressing themselves. It can be trough painting, acting, music, drawing and modelling. Physical, helps develop fine motor skills (hold a pen, etc). Cognitive, give the children opportunity to use symbols to represent something. Language, talking to organize playing, communication with other children or adults. Emotional, gives the opportunity to express their emotions and feelings. Social, maybe they can play games and work as a team or play together and build relationships.

  • Imaginative play: it is when the child pretends to be someone and create an imaginary world. They dressing-up, they play mom and daughter or doctor and patient. They can be “the mom” or a doll can be “the mom”. They create a “theatre”. Physical, encourages children to manipulate resources and develop motor skills. Cognitive, helps children to think what will happen and abstract things. Language, communication during the play, they can learn new vocabulary according the play. Emotional, helps to express emotions and feelings. They can re-enact what they saw adults doing. Social, play together, social interaction.

  • Sensory play: it includes activities that stimulates children’s sense: touch, smell, taste, movement, balance, sight and hearing. Examples of sensory play is, playing with sand, mud or dough. Physical, develop fine and gross motor skills depending the activity. Cognitive, children learn about textures and different materials. Language, communication according the activity/play. Emotional, opportunity to express feelings and relaxation. Offers enjoyable sensations. Social, opportunity to take turns and play with friends.

The principles of heuristic play

“Heuristic play was a term coined by a child psychologist Elinor Goldschmeid in the early 1980's. Heuristic play describes the activity of babies and children as they play with and explore the properties of 'objects'. These 'objects' are things from the real world”.

Heuristic play has some principles as:

The equipment used in heuristic play must come from everyday objects as natural resources (wood, stone, metal, etc), objects from the house (spoons, bottles, vases, brushes, etc). It needs to be familiar objects, it cannot be a toy.

During the activity the adult put the objects in front of the child and just observe. It doesn’t have any interaction, not even eyes contact. Adults supervision for safety reasons, but never take a lead. The child will explore all the objects by their own, how long he/she wants. It cannot have distractions.

We have 2 kinds of heuristic play: treasure basket and heuristic play.

  • Treasure basket play: It is a basket and many different real-life objects you want, the ideal is 30 to 50 objects. It is ideal for babies, because you can put on the floor and the baby goes there and decide what to do. The adult supervises for safety reason but doesn’t interfere.

  • Heuristic play: When babies start moving, the type of heuristic play changes. You can add more objects and display differently as put in a pile. The most important is, not toys.

Evaluating resources

There are many kinds of resources that can be used in different kinds of play. When we think about resources we need to consider some facts as:

  • Age and/or stage of children: resources must respect age and stage of each children. The resource might be challenging if not the children can be bored.

  • Health and safety: the quality the resource has to be good enough to be safe in all aspects (including allergies).

  • Supervision: some resources is really good but need to have adult supervision all the time to ensure safety. Water tank for example, the children love to play with, but it can be dangerous if not supervised.

  • Interest: some resource doesn’t challenge children, and they easily be bored, we can talk with children and realize what they would like.

  • Space: some resources ask for big places, we need thinking about if we have enough for them and the children

  • Quantity: we don’t need to have same toy for each child, however we need to have toys and resources enough for all of them play together.

  • Balance: we need to have many types of play and availability

  • Costs: some resources are so expensive and unnecessary. We need analyse what is good and have a good value for children.


TASSORI, Penny. Early Years Educator – for the work-based learner. Cache level 3

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