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July 15, 2016

Child development expert Gill Connell explains why it’s important to let your toddler play by their own rules and how you can help by joining in.

We all know that play is crucial to brain development in young children – that in play children are setting the bulk of their neural pathways for life; they’re determining how they will think and learn and even their outlooks on life and how they define themselves. So what does child’s play look like?

There is a school of thought that suggests that children learn best in structured environments. In classroom-like situations they learn to follow directions, socialise with others, sit still and listen and develop useful skill sets. However, unstructured play does all of those things too and it does it better. What’s more, it’s actually how nature intended little ones to develop.

Unstructured play has no agenda and it’s self-initiated. Research tells us that when young children are given the time and space to play their way, they expand and grow their minds and bodies in limitless and profound ways. When your little one is in control of her play, time stands still – new discoveries are made and from there she learns to draw her own conclusions. In those moments of creation and decision-making, your young child is laying down the foundations for future learning – she’s learning how to learn.

 Five ways to enhance your child’s play experience: 

  1. Provide the opportunity and environment to play, not the agenda.
  2. Wait to be invited to play.
  3. Think short – it’s important to get down to kid level, both physically and emotionally!
  4. Recognise and acknowledge what your child does well.
  5. Wonder aloud. It’s a great way to draw your child in and help her to arrive at her own conclusions. 


Role Play 

When your child puts on a superman cape or nurse’s uniform, it gives her license to lose her own identity and step into another. This often requires her to move in different ways and use novel and innovative vocabulary, intonation and gestures she may not use in her daily life. It gives her confidence to communicate in ways she may otherwise be too fearful to try if she were herself.

Where you fit in

Wait until you are invited to play. Try to respect its realness and go along with every whim. Be sincere when your child invites you to role-play and follow her lead. Stay in the moment and, if you can, in character until you’re told otherwise! In other words, let her play her way. There is no room for logic or correctness. The best thing is that this gives you license to be that kid you know lies within too!

Ball Play 

This is high-energy play and is a great opportunity to take play outside. It involves whole body movements and gives your child an opportunity to be in control of her own movements, experiment, make up rules, play and organise others. One of the great outcomes of ball play is that it teaches your child to develop an understanding of judging time: how fast the ball is moving, being ready to catch or kick the ball as it moves toward her. The great thing about ball play is that you can introduce balls before your child is moving on their own – it’s a great way to motivate a baby to move around the floor.

Where you fit in

Balls are often associated with games and sports. Make sure both girls and boys enjoy the benefits of all a ball game can offer and remember, it’s not training camp! Encourage your child to experiment with throwing and catching in different ways e.g. throwing underarm, a running throw, bowling – and try not to make it competitive. If she needs rules, let her be the one to design them. When she is in charge, she is thinking on her feet, making judgments and taking responsibility – all necessary life skills! Try using different balls – small, large, squishy, soft, sticky balls that have different shapes and textures. Different balls invite different ways to be played with.

Jumping, hopping, leaping and skipping 

Leaving the ground is something to be explored and the fact that gravity pulls you back down to earth is something to figure out and try to defy! These movements provide great aerobic fitness for children of any age and strengthen young bones and muscles. Brain development is also greatly enhanced by the whole-body activity of these kinds of movements. When the body works, both sides of the brain do too, integrating and speeding up the processing between the left and right hemispheres of the cortex.

Where you fit in

Give your child the space to jump, hop, leap and skip. It’s a physical release that gets rid of pent-up energy and emotion. Try challenging her to jump further, higher and in different ways and remember – she’s competing with herself, not others. Talk about different animals and how they jump. Challenge her to jump like a rabbit, kangaroo, deer or frog. Be inventive and work out different ways with her to jump e.g. jump in circles, along lines, over and off things. Play jumping games like hopscotch and elastics. Jump rope and introduce jumping toys like pogo sticks.

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