Play is one of the most-loved parts of childhood, and experts agree it is one of the most important too. Play is any type of activity that a child finds fun and enjoyable. The American Academy of Pediatrics believes play is essential to development because it contributes to a child’s cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being. Games and other fun activities help children hone critical abilities that they will use throughout their lives. Acquired skills like problem-solving, creativity, assessing risks, and working cooperatively with others exemplify how play benefits childhood cognitive development. Different types of play can also strengthen critical cognitive areas. For example, children who use their imaginations for make-believe or play pretend in secure environments learn how to create a narrative, assess different emotions, explore newfound interests, and adapt to diverse situations. Playtime with others teaches children how to share, take turns, resolve conflicts, and interact in different social situations.
For children with developmental delays or disabilities, play can be a unique way to help implement therapy. Play can improve muscles and coordination for children with mobility impairments. For children who have a hearing or visual impairment, certain playtime activities can improve their other senses to help them navigate and explore the world. Children with autistic spectrum disorder may not be as social or imaginative with their play. Instead, they may show interest in non-toy objects and have fun with activities that involve counting or sorting things. A child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may struggle to play socially. Their symptoms may include having difficulty waiting their turn, which can sometimes put other children off while playing with them. Playtime gives children with ADHD a chance to express themselves and exert energy, and with some guidance, they can learn to build relationships with other children.
"It can be overwhelming at times for parents to find meaningful activities to keep their children entertained," says Amy Spawn, CEO of The Warren Center. "To help parents overcome this challenge, we have created a seasonal play guide to help inspire parents with unique play opportunities that will help children achieve developmental milestones while also having fun."
The experts at The Warren Center have created a "Year of Play" Guide mapping out seasonal, fun learning opportunities for children from birth to age three.
As the temperatures drop, incorporate the change in weather into your playtime routine. Talk to your baby, using the word "cold” to describe touching cold water, snow, or ice. Don’t forget to do this when you open the fridge or go outside in cold weather. Babies develop their vocabulary when they are spoken to. Repetition is key, as is changing the tone of your voice for the word you are emphasizing, "Feel the cold water. Ooooh, that's cold, isn't it? Cold, cold water." Listen to your baby's response. At the age of one, you may hear your baby start to imitate your sounds. For toddlers, talk about how the cold feels. Use other descriptors for "cold"—like "freezing," "icy," or "chilly." You can start to discuss seasons and how we have cold weather in winter, like snow and ice. You can also read winter-themed books such as The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats or Snowballs by Lois Ehlert.
When playing with your baby (ages six months and up), put a few wet ice cubes on their highchair and encourage your baby to touch and play with the ice. For toddlers, talk about how water turns into ice when it freezes. Then play "freeze" with your toddler. When you say "freeze," everyone stops moving. When you say "go," everyone can move again. Let your toddler have a turn calling "freeze" and "go." You can start/stop the music to enhance this game as well. Children 18 months or older can experiment with ice too. Make shaved ice in a blender or put some in a shallow pan, along with some ice cubes for fun, but cold, play. Add spoons, cups, and bowls for your child to scoop and dump the ice. When it is time to clean up, let your child melt the ice with warm water and pour it down the drain. Discuss how the warm water melts the ice and turns it back into water.
Springtime brings lots of showers and pretty flowers. Help your child experience this season of growth by singing songs like Rain, Rain Go Away, and Itsy Bitsy Spider. Try using hand gestures while you sing Itsy Bitsy Spider—your baby will love the entertainment and may even try to imitate you. Teach your toddler the motions that go along with these songs too. Discuss various weather words like puddle, rain boots and raincoat, raindrops, umbrella, pouring, sprinkling, misting, fog, wind, and clouds. Take a look outside and ask, “How many of these words do you see outside your window?”
Rainy days are a great time to read books together. For babies, try Rain Feet by Angela Johnson or Gossie and Gertie by Olivia Dunrea, featuring Gossie, the duck who loves her red galoshes. For older toddlers, good choices include The Little Cloud by Eric Carle, Rain or Shine: All About Weather by Danielle Denega, and the ultimate rainy day fantasy, The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss.
Babies can play "rain" inside during bath time by pouring water out of a plastic pitcher. Does your baby like it when the water comes out slow or fast? Does your baby try to grab the water? Try to pour water through a strainer and watch as it sprinkles out, or use a plastic plate and let it splash. Blow bubbles during bath time and sing songs like Rain, Rain Go Away as the bubble "raindrops" float over their head.
A fun way for toddlers to learn about rain is by making a weather chart. Each morning look outside the window with your toddler and ask them: "What do you see? Is it rainy, cloudy, or sunny?" Draw a sun, clouds, or raindrops on paper with the matching word underneath. Does your child remember the names for each type of weather? Ask your toddler to color and draw with you. You can post your daily forecast and talk about the week's weather on Friday. You can also let your older toddler draw the weather themselves. Create symbols of each kind of weather—a sun, an umbrella, a cloud on pieces of paper and let your child cut out the shape and glue it to the weather chart.
Older children may enjoy going out on a rain walk. Bundle up in a raincoat and rainboots; put a rain shield over the stroller and take a walk in the rain. Ask your child what they see along the way. Do they see raindrops on plants? Worms? Puddles? Don't fret if your toddler gets wet while exploring; have some dry clothes and a towel ready by the door, so your tot can warm up and talk all about what you've just seen.
Summertime is a great time to learn more about animals. When talking to your baby, ask, "Do you see any animals outside?". Name the different animals that you can see for your baby: birds, squirrels, ducks, dogs, cats, rabbits. Which animal does your baby like the most? Make each animal's sounds. Which sound makes your baby giggle? Take your toddler on a "safari walk" and ask your tot to tell you when they see an animal. Does your child know the animal's name? The sound it makes? Does your tot understand where it lives? Watch these animals together and discuss what you see.
Read books that feature different kinds of animals. For babies, try: Whose Nose and Toes? by John Butler, Does a Kangaroo Have a Mother, Too? by Eric Carle, Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann, Baby Animals by DK Publishing, and Country Animals, Farm Animals, and Pet Animals by Lucy Cousins. For older toddlers, good choices include Over in the Meadow by Ezra Jack Keats, Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey, Mrs. Brown Went to Town by Wong Herbert Yee, Cock-a-Doodle-Doo! Barnyard Hullabaloo by Giles Andreae, The Napping House by Audrey Wood, and I Love My Mama by Peter Kavanagh.
Teaching your child animal safety begins early. Babies are often intrigued by watching animals outside or through the window. Stick with your baby and let them watch as long as they desire, though be cautious of approaching animals you do not know. You can foster your baby's interest in animals by installing a bird feeder to encourage birds to visit. For an indoor activity, give your baby swatches of fake fur and feathers to touch and feel (both are available at craft stores).
For your toddler, create a fun matching game by cutting pictures of animals out of magazines and gluing them to sturdy cardboard. Ensure there are two pictures of each animal. Lay these pictures face up on the floor and see if your child can match the same animals. Matching games are a fun way to build thinking skills. Toddlers may also enjoy playing "barnyard." Walk and "talk" like an animal with your child—perhaps meow like a cat or "trot" and neigh like a horse.
With the fall breeze and autumn leaves in the air, now is a great time to learn about pumpkins which will be popping up everywhere. Fall is a great time to visit your local pumpkin patch or checkout pumpkins at the grocery store. Encourage your baby to touch the pumpkins while asking them how they look and feel—they're big, round, and orange. Are they smooth or bumpy? Knock on the pumpkin. Is your baby interested in this sound? Let your baby try to knock on the pumpkin, too. When talking to your toddler about pumpkins, discuss the pumpkin's color, texture, shape, and size. Use new words to describe the pumpkins to help build their vocabulary. You can also share that pumpkins grow in a pumpkin patch from seeds. Ask your child which pumpkin is their favorite and why.
Read stories about this most special part of fall—round, orange pumpkins! For babies, try Plumply Dumply Pumpkin by Mary Serfozo, The Little Pumpkin Book by Katy Bratun, and My Jack-O-Lantern by Nancy J. Skarmeas. For older toddlers, good choices include. Apples and Pumpkins by Anne Rockwell, It's Pumpkin Time by Zoe Hall, Pumpkin Pumpkin by Jeanne Titherington, and Too Many Pumpkins by Linda White.
There are many fun activities to celebrate fall, including arts and crafts and enjoying sweet treats. For your baby, you can get them their very own little pumpkin (or gourd) to finger-paint with washable tempera paints. If your baby is eating solids, let them try a taste of pumpkin pie filling or a pumpkin muffin. Be sure to check with your pediatrician before introducing any new fruits and vegetables into your baby's diet. What does your baby think of this new taste?
Toddlers may enjoy carving pumpkins; start by lining a table with newspaper or a plastic tablecloth and then cut the top off a pumpkin so that your child can help you scoop out the seeds. Let your child play with what you found inside of the pumpkin. This is a fun sensory activity for toddlers who enjoy getting messy. Be aware, though, that some children might not like the feeling of the pumpkin parts and will want to clean up immediately. After emptying the pumpkin, your child can paint it using washable tempera paints or draw on it with washable markers.