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From a fort made from pillows to tales of adventures with make-believe friends, a child’s imagination is boundless.

Play is an important aspect of a child’s upbringing. It encourages creative thinking, problem solving and communication. When a child explores their world through play activities, they learn at their own pace.

Read on to see how play helps children to learn, grow and have fun.  There are even seven play ideas to spark your child’s imagination.

The benefits of play

Play is important for healthy brain development and supports children to learn about themselves and their environment. Play can also encourage physical activity, which in turn improves overall wellbeing.

Creating safe environments to explore and play also has a positive effect on children’s social relationships. For families, playing together gives an opportunity for connection. When a parent or caregiver engages in child-driven play, they can see the world through their child’s eyes. Understanding a child’s perspective also helps parents or caregivers to better communicate with their children.

Play can help strengthen a child’s connection to the world around them and can spark a sense of curiosity. Play-based experiences can also help children to develop confidence and resilience for facing future challenges. What’s more, the social skills learned through childhood play – including sharing, working in groups, negotiating and resolving conflicts – carry through into adulthood.

Stages and types of play

Children will begin playing by themselves as infants and toddlers, interacting with toys and objects around them.

From around 18 months, children will start to play alongside others. From two to five years of age, children progress from playing on their own to being interested in what others are doing. They practise social skills such as taking turns and develop their imagination through role play and fantasy play.

Play can be structured or unstructured. Structured play is an activity that has a specific learning objective and is often guided by an instructor, teacher, parent or guardian. Unstructured play or ‘free play’ is spontaneous and improvised; it gives children the freedom to explore their environment and practise decision making skills, discover and engage with their own areas of interest, and move at their own pace. Having a mixture of both play options provides valuable learning experiences.

7 Ideas for play

Play can come in a variety of forms, expressions and activities. Offering activities interwoven with exploration, creativity, song and story can boost imagination and healthy development. Here are seven fun play ideas you can try with your little ones.

1. Dress ups

Try giving your kids a towel to use as a cape or pot as an astronaut’s helmet. Let your children mimic their favourite action figure or create their own story. If they’re stuck on who to choose, look through a book together for inspiration.

2. Throw a picnic/tea party

If the sun is shining, head outside (don’t forget the sunscreen and hats), find a shady spot for a picnic blanket and enjoy a teddy bear picnic. Is the weather bad outside? No stress – set up an indoor picnic or tea party. Encourage your child to create their own décor and join in for a cup of make-believe tea!

3. Get building

Building is a great way to get playing. Bring out the playdough and mould something new or get creative with building blocks. Allow them to craft shapes and figures – the only limitation is their imagination.

4. Create an obstacle course

Obstacle courses are a great way to be active and creative. Bring the family together to construct the course with household objects or items found in nature. Cardboard boxes, pillows, toys, chairs, branches… anything can be used to create a fun and challenging obstacle course! When it comes time to compete, think outside the box – run the course pretending to be your favourite animal, hop the course on one leg, or think of wild new ways to play!

5. Honour their art

Getting out the pencils, crayons and paints is a classic way to get the creativity flowing and encourage kids to use their imagination. Give your child a blank canvas and see what they come up with. Displaying their art around the home or gifting them to grandparents and other relatives will encourage them to be creative. Another way to spread kindness and joy, while also promoting social connectedness, is to paint and hide rocks along walking paths for your local community to find. They can include kind messages, characters or fun pictures. It’s a fun activity you can enjoy together and a great way to get active.

6. Multi-sensory tools

Children develop skills by experiencing the world through sight, touch, taste, smell and hearing. Using utensils and kitchen pots is a great way to make some noise and jam out in your kitchen. If you’re after a quieter way to play, why not put on a puppet show with some oven mitts. Let your child take the lead and be the director – it’s a great way to develop their creative expression, confidence and imagination.

7. Create a business

Is your child business-savvy? Suggest developing and creating an imaginary business like a restaurant or fashion store. They could design the menus or items they’d like to sell and create the theme and floor plans too. This activity can be revisited numerous times to see how the business plans evolve over time.