Five to Thrive: Play

This part of Five to Thrive is about being playful and activating the right side of the brain. 


Play helps your baby make sense of the world around them and it’s how they learn. Your baby is happiest when they’re playing with you as they enjoy your loving attention.

Newborns can’t see very far, so play might be as simple as:

  • Smiling
  • Poking out your tongue
  • Playing peek-a-boo by covering your face

Tummy time

happy baby lying on tummy

Tummy time is good for your baby up to 1 year of age. Never leave your baby unattended. Build up the time your baby is on their tummy. Have a toy or a mirror in front of your baby on the floor. This will open a whole new view of the world for them and at the same time strengthen their back, neck, and shoulders. 

Treasure baskets

Treasure baskets instead of toys are great sensory play for your baby. You can make baskets with themes, for example:

  • Wooden and natural
  • Shiny and reflective – your baby will love to play with a reflective blanket, which makes great sounds and reflects light. They are often found in the ‘car accessories’ sections of shops.
  • Colour coded – several items of one colour.
  • Brushes – hairbrush, toothbrush, make-up brush.
  • Fabrics – different textures like velvet, silk, chiffon.
  • Exploring sound – musical instruments, bells, and homemade shakers.

Watch how your baby uses the items. From around a year old you might see your baby using objects for their intended purpose. For example, trying to brush their hair with a hairbrush or stirring with a spoon.

Hiding items

It is also useful to have items like cups or bowls that you can turn upside down and hide things underneath. This helps your baby understand that something still exists even if they cannot see it. This is also known as ‘object permanence’.


Toddler blowing bubbles

Bubbles are great for your child’s development as well as being fun. Your child will further develop their hand and eye coordination. They will be able to watch, catch and interact with others. As they try to blow the bubbles, they will also learn a new skill. 

Messy play

This is very early ‘mark making’ which is an important pre-writing skill. It may seem messy, but your baby will learn from this type of activity and enjoy it. Examples of messy play materials are:

  • Yoghurt
  • Custard
  • Jelly
  • Mashed potato
  • Ice

Sand and water play

Sand and water are open-ended. Your child will amuse themselves for hours pouring, tipping, and mixing. You don’t need huge amounts.

baby playing with water

See what floats and what sinks in water. Add some bubble bath and whisk it and you could try a few drops of food colouring as well.

To extend learning you can look at the things that you can do with wet and dry sand. You can use twigs or lolly sticks for mark-making in sand.

You could use safe kitchen utensils like whisks, meat basters, sieves, spoons, and colanders. Tiny items are great for developing fine motor skills, but do not leave your child unattended with something small they might put in their mouth. You could also use pipettes and tiny funnels from a travel kit for toiletries.

Warning: Do not leave babies and young children unattended near water as they can drown in as little as 5cm.

Pretend play

Dressing up play helps your child with this. Your child will enjoy acting out everyday life or make-believe life:

  • What will they be? 
  • Where will they go? 
  • Who will be there? 

Make obstacle courses, dens, and indoor camping sites. Use pillows, washing baskets, and peg out towels and bed sheets. Your child will get hours of fun out of this.

Play patterns (schemas)

You will notice how your child will is interested in certain activities. You may also notice patterns in their play. These patterns are called schemas. 

  • Transporting: wheelbarrows, bags
  • Transforming: freezing/melting, colour mixing, cooking, dressing up
  • Rotation: cogs, wheels, turning keys, taps, water wheels, circles. You might also notice that your baby may start turning a toy car upside down and spinning the wheels. Or they may be interested in a water wheel in the bath and want to spin it with their fingers. It’s likely that they are in a rotation schema. Giving them cogs, wheels, taps, and keys to turn will help to support their fascination.
  • Trajectory: throwing, kicking. When your baby is throwing food onto the floor from their highchair, they may be in a trajectory schema, testing gravity! Your baby may be thinking ‘I wonder what happens when I let go?’ It’s an early science test for them. Giving them a ball to kick or throw will help to support that interest.
  • Connecting: train tracks, bricks, threading, gluing, tying laces, puzzles
  • Disconnecting: knocking down, tearing, taking things apart. The disconnecting schema often appears early – you build a tower, and your baby knocks it down! Your baby will like ripping paper too – this is also part of the disconnecting schema (as well as a sensory activity). Ripping wrapping paper from a present is always exciting.

Action songs

The Dingle Dangle Scarecrow 

When all the cows were sleeping, 
And the sun had gone to bed,
Up jumped the scarecrow, 
And this is what he said.
I’m the dingle dangle scarecrow, 
With a flippy, floppy hat,
I can shake my hands like this,
And shake my feet like that.

Watch The Dingle Dangle Scarecrow with Mr Tumble

The Grand Old Duke of York

Oh, the Grand Old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men.
He marched them up to the top of the hill.
And he marched them down again.
And when they were up, they were up.
And when they were down, they were down.
And when they were only halfway up,
They were neither up nor down.

Wind the Bobbin Up

Wind the bobbin up, wind the bobbin up.
Pull, pull, clap, clap, clap.
Wind it back again, wind it back again.
Pull, pull, clap, clap, clap.
Point to the ceiling.
Point to the floor.
Point to the window.
Point to the door.
Clap your hands together 1,2,3.
Put your hands upon your knees.


Your toddler will learn through play. Play can also be used to safely explore your toddler’s emotions. 

Encourage your toddler to find their own way to play and join in. Allow your toddler to: 

  • Spend time reading books and support them to do this. Exciting props and sensory books can bring a story to life.
  • Go for a walk or other forms of active play. 
  • Sit and enjoy the outdoors.
  • Make a game of everyday activities, like spotting numbers on doors when out walking. 

Your toddler will be into more than one play pattern or schema at a time. If you can, tune into your child’s interests and let them lead the direction of play. They will become curious, independent learners. This helps them to be ready for starting school.

Pre-school children

Pre-schoolers learn and explore through play. It’s the fastest way for them to learn. You can encourage your child to be a curious learner by giving them opportunities to explore and experiment with:

  • Mixing paint colours
  • Cooking ingredients 

If your child is struggling in their play, encourage them to keep trying. It’s sometimes tempting to take over, but if your child can do it themselves, they will be motivated and develop self-belief. 

The time to offer support is when your child becomes too frustrated. But if they’re happy to keep trying, let them. This helps them develop their concentration and problem-solving abilities too. 

Playing provides lots of opportunities for talking. You can encourage:

  • Speech and language skills
  • Independence
  • Curiosity
  • A love of learning

This will all help your pre-schooler to be ready for school.

Pre-schoolers have great imaginations so encourage your child to be creative. Show your child that the process is more important than the end product so they feel capable. Even if this means you end up with a soggy painting that takes ages to dry, your child will feel more positive if it’s their own creation. 

Getting outside for some active time each day is a good way to burn off some of your child’s energy. There are many health and well-being benefits to connecting with nature. And it’s easier for your child to relax when they’ve had the chance to let off steam.

Make a game of everyday activities. For example, when you’re in the park, ask your child to find a leaf or a feather.

Older children

For older children, play will be either independent or with friends. Let older children invent their own games and have time to play on their own. 

As your child gets older, they will enjoy you being active with them. You could also explore Parkrun. Parkrun is a free weekly event that happens all over the UK, which you can walk, jog or run:

Play daily checklist

Have you: 

  • Praised your child?
  • Given your child time to respond in their own way?
  • Stopped what you were doing to play with your child?
  • Laughed together?
  • Turned a household job into a game?
  • Planned an activity to enjoy together?
five to thrive tower of blocks showing play

This page was co-produced in partnership with KCA

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Last updated on 14 February 2024