There are many different ways we can enable children to play which I have picked up over the past few years. Here are a few of my favourite:
This is a fantastic way for children to explore and experiment using all their senses that can be started from a very young age. Most of the time the stuff we do messy play with is edible so it doesn't matter if children eat a bit as can be very tempting for them especially when they are under a year old or we are playing with cereal which always seems to get munched! We have used pasta, custard, tinned tomatoes, jelly, porridge oats, cereal, semolina, rice, noodles, cereal, couscous, water, ice, snow & shaving foam. The sky really is the limit in this area.
I use the cat litter trays they sell cheaply in discount stores or supermarkets or the Ikea Trofast trays to put the material in and sometimes add implements to handle the substance which can help some children who don't immediately want to feel different textures on their hands. Vehicles, animals and people can also be added to encourage imaginative play and objects to fill and empty to develop maths skills.
This kind of play aids physical development (practicing fine motor skills and hand to eye coordination). Children can also explore a variety of textures, smells, listen to different noises, observe what happens when they drop or squeeze or roll different things and taste of course! Children learn turn taking, widen their language by talking about what they are doing and thinking, build their confidence, develop concentration and messy play provides an outlet for emotions. It is also fantastic fun!
Children should be allowed to explore at their own pace with adult intervention kept to a minimum. Some children may feel inhibited if they feel Mummy or Daddy don't want them to get dirty or some may be more sensitive to sensory experiences and take longer to enjoy messy play or enjoy it more when they can handle thing with forks or spoons. As adults to ensure this experience is as positive as possible we should remember that any mess can be tidied up, clothes can be washed and so can children. Live in the moment and be child like :)
This is when children enact scenarios they witness others in their environment doing or pretend to be something that interests them (in the above picture Ethan was being a butterfly apparently). This can start as holding a toy up and pretending it is a mobile phone and they are talking to someone on it, making dinner, drinking a cup of tea, driving a car, sweeping the floor etc. We can encourage this type of play with props or toys such as cardboard boxes, clothes, hats, scarves, shoes and bags picked up from Charity shops or that we no longer use (or specific child dress up clothes), kitchen utensils, play food, bowls and children will also pick things up and use them as something we as adults would never imagine. Also we can create spaces which encourage play like a sheet over some chairs that may become a tent. Life events may make children more aware of something such as present giving at Christmas which can start off new games such as wrapping and unwrapping presents (putting all their toys in a bag and then giving it to you to unwrap and thank them for).
Children also do this sort of play on a smaller scale with small world play. We have a farm scene and buildings made from wood that we picked up at the school fete for £3 and painted in simple colours. Sometimes all the vehicles take over the farm, sometimes there are lots of animals and people and Bob the Builder's ladder comes out, sometimes pipe cleaners are thrown all over the farm as snow or shells make it a beach and the buildings are all filled up with them.
Imaginative play can benefit children as it helps them make sense of things, they can develop social skills (sharing and working through problems) and language skills (story telling, listening, talking and body language), they can use it to unwind and enjoy quiet time and develop their imagination. Also children can explore their emotions and recount experiences.
This is where we give children access to objects from the real world made from different materials in order for them explore using all their senses. Plastic and electronic toys (that feel, look and taste very similar and may only have one function) can fail to stimulate children and may frustrate or bore them easily. An example of this can be found in the baby that tosses their birthday presents aside and plays with the boxes and wrapping paper! For babies we can make treasure baskets.
Items you could have in a treasure basket include:
egg boxes, toilet roll tubes, wrapping paper,
wooden kitchen utensils, curtain rings, bracelets,
natural objects such as an orange, coconut shells, shells, pine cones, loofah, sheepskin, pebbles,
ribbon, silk scarves, lace, cotton handkerchief,
metal objects such as spoons, whisks, cookie cutters, tea strainers, egg cups,
cosmetic brushes, body brushes, nail brushes, scrubbing brushes and CDs.
Treasure baskets should be kept where a baby can reach them and empty and fill as they wish. Objects should be added to the basket and taken out regularly to maintain interest. Baby should be free to explore each object as they wish and decided what they want to play with whilst adult supervises but does not interfere. Objects no smaller than a five pence piece should be placed in treasure baskets as there is a choking hazard. Always supervise babies with treasure baskets and check items for damage, throwing them out if necessary.
Children under one learn about the world though sensory motor development where they pick objects up and explore the texture, taste and other physical characteristics through placing them in their mouth. A treasure basket provides an interesting and rich experience for the baby which helps their brain grow by making connections and stimulating them.
For children over a year heuristic play is done in a slightly different way. Toddlers like to know what an objects is and if it has a function. They will experiment with objects by rubbing them, bashing them on things, squeezing, throwing and shaking them. They may ask "what is this?" and "what does that do?" and use them in imaginative role play games. Toddlers will gain a lot from playing with the same kinds of items in treasure baskets but because they are not so drawn to mouth everything objects can be added such as:
corks, pipe cleaners, cotton wool, buttons, lids, cardboard tubes of different length, hair rollers, cotton reels, pebbles, feathers, tins and other types of containers.
For toddlers heuristic play we can place groups of resources in separate containers such as plastic food storage containers (a good excuse to buy a takeaway!), baskets or other containers. These can be labelled with pictures of what they contain inside so children can easily find what they are looking for and assist and learn sorting and categorization at tidy up time. They may be categorized by what they are, shape or similarities (such as rolling items). Children should be free to play with the resources however they like in the knowledge that at tidy up time resources will be returned to where they came from.
Again this activity is completely child led and adult interference is kept to a minimum. There is no right or wrong way for a child to play with the resources unless you feel they are doing something dangerous with an item. Children can develop their physical skills, imagination, language skills, understanding of the world, social skills, maths skills and confidence with this type of play.