"Play is the Work of Children, it's very serious stuff" - Bob Keeshan
Updated: Apr 27
“Why is play so important? What toys should my kids be playing with? What gifts should I buy? What should I stock my kids playroom with?”
These are just some of the questions I have asked myself and been asked many times.
So to help answer this, I’ve teamed up with the amazing Siobhán Prendiville. Siobhán hails from Limerick and is from the Children’s Therapy Centre, Ireland’s premier training centre for Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy and Play Therapy. Siobhán is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist, Play Therapist, Clinical Supervisor, Author, Presenter, Trainer and Mum. Her original background is in primary school teaching and she runs the amazing @ctc_childrenstherapycentre Instagram page.
Aimed at parents, it helps inspire easy ideas for play and explains the benefits. Siobhán is serious about play and the perfect person to help guide us on what we should look for when stocking our toy boxes. She explain play basics, techniques and will help to guide us on age and stage appropriate toys that will span the test of time.
From a Parents Perspective.
Before I hand over to Siobhán for a professional take, I wanted to briefly outline my thoughts as a parent. Buying toys can be a minefield (I’ve made many mistakes along the way!), as a new parent/grandparent, if you don’t have kids yourself, don’t have kids the age you are looking to buy for, or just feel a bit out of touch with what kids are enjoying now.
Toy shops have shelves are stacked so high, it can be overwhelming, where do you start? There are toys that fly, have flashing lights, toys that sing songs, but what is it that hits the spot, and more importantly what will last?
Throughout my experience, there are a few things I’ve learnt along the way.
Less is more, choose quality over quantity. It is usually the cheap plastic toy that ends up broken or gathering dust. Good quality toys last, not just for one childhood, but for many. There are still toys at my grandmother’s house that she bought for her kids…that are still going strong for her great grandchildren.
Open ended play was a revelation to me! Items that can BE anything. The most simple example is a stick…arguably one of the world’s favourite toys. A simple stick transforms into a sword, a hiking stick, an excavation tool, a bush whacker, a gear stick and today it was a turbo charged magic wand, imbuing Jack with super speed. Consider this when selecting toys, the more it can do/be, the more your child will engage with it and the longer they will engage with it for.
Make it easy for yourself and family to get involved in play! It is FUN, great for bonding, communication and spending quality time together, children are happy on the floor, so make it easy and comfortable to get on their level. A decent playmat is essential in my view – like the Bumpa Mat, (the main reason I started Loved by Rascals) it makes it so easy and comfortable to spend time on the ground with your kids, it’s wipeable and reversible.
Birthday Lists/Occasion Lists – no doubt family and friends are scratching their heads about what to get your rascal. Keep a note during the year of items that you think would hit the spot that you can suggest when the time comes. This can also help with taking the pressure off big ticket items if everyone chips in.
Take the pressure off, you don’t have to engage in ALL types of play in ways that you see online. I often look at kids having a ball doing messy or sensory play, but the thought of setting it up and cleaning up afterwards makes me…what’s the word…physically ill…but I am an outdoor person, who couldn’t care less if the kids get filthy at the beach or in the mud at the park – so this is where mine experience this sort of play. Make it work for you, so you can enjoy it too.
Do yourself a favour and limit things that sing/talk…if I hear “oh toodles!” one more time I will through that fecking yolk out the window…(a much easier solution is to send it off to Nana & Grandpa’s for kids to play with there!).
From a Professional Perspective.
So Siobhán, over to you, I would love to hear your take on the importance of play, the types of play we should consider and what sort of things we should look for when considering toys.
Thank you Carolyn! What a gorgeous introduction. I must admit I found myself smiling and nodding along as I heard your thoughts, I agree on all counts! For me, play really is one of the most important thing that children can do – it is up there with eating and sleeping.
Play is not a luxury for children it is a necessity. The benefits of play are truly outstanding. Play is the language of children, play is how children communicate their thoughts, their feelings and experiences. Play is also their natural mode of learning. In play children learn about themselves and the world around them, they learn in a hands on, active and meaningful way. When children learn through play they learn for life. Play is fun, it is engaging, it brings laughter and joy.
Play literally increases happy hormones in our children, and in big people too. The vast powers of play do not end when a child reaches a certain age. Play develops and grows just as children do, and so too do the associated benefits. As a mental health professional I am often asked for my top tips to support children’s overall emotional well-being and one of the ones that always reaches my top list is to increase children’s play diets! As a teacher I am often asked how to support children’s learning, the answer is the same, increase their play diet!
As a Mom, a former primary school teacher, and a child and adolescent psychotherapist I firmly believe that if we want to truly support our children’s development and their mental health then we need to let them play, then play some more, and maybe even more again. Play really is the way!!!
Play is actually now known to be “brain building”, yes I will say that again, play is brain building. When we look at the neurobiology of play we now know that is a natural drive, our brains and bodies are built to play and benefit profoundly from doing so. As children play their brains build new circuits in the prefrontal cortex, which is basically the brains executive control centre.
There are so many different types of play, and a wealth of various benefits associated with each type.
Here are some key facts about play to keep in mind!
Play is intrinsically motivated and driven
Engagement in play shows children at their optimal level of functioning (Vygotsky, 1976)
Essential for cognitive, physical, emotional and social development
Play facilitates the development of coping skills and resilience.
Encourages friendships and improves confidence
Allows children to make mistakes and learn from them safely
Acts as a bridge between concrete experience and abstract thought (Piaget, 1962)
Play accelerates psychological development, it fosters and supports physical, intellectual, linguistic, emotional, and social development.
Play is therapeutic and educational, plus its fun! What’s not to love?
When children play:
They learn all about themselves, their bodies, their environment and people around them.
They develop an increased self-confidence and a more positive self-image
They learn to express their feelings, experiences and problems in a safe way.
They learn to take control and make choices and decisions
They try to make sense of their experiences by playing them out
They rehearse or practice for real life situations
They develop coping skills by making unmanageable realities more manageable in symbolic play
You may have heard of some, or all, of these categories of play before – sensory play, manipulative play, construction play, creative play, small world play, puppet play, role play and games with rules.
Sensory Play involves using the body to experience the world through touching, smelling, tasting, seeing, hearing and moving. Sensory play includes physical, movement based play, and also play with sensory objects and play materials.
Creative Play involves children exploring and using their bodies and materials to make and do things, and to playfully share their feelings, ideas and thoughts. They enjoy being creative by dancing, painting, playing with junk and recycled materials, playing with play-dough, clay etc..
Construction Play involves building something using natural and manufactured materials. As children develop, this type of play can become more complex and intricate. Think small and big!!
Manipulative Play tends to refer to activities where children move, order, turn, and/or screw items to make them fit. Threading and lacing games, jigsaws, and some construction and creative arts play fit in here.
Small World Play involves children using small-scale representations of real things like animals, people, cars, and train sets as play props. They often play out stories and adventures using small world play materials.
Pretend Play involves children using their imaginations. It includes pretending with objects, actions and situations. As children grow, their imaginations and their play become increasingly complex. Children use their developing language to move from thinking in the concrete to thinking in the abstract. They make up stories and scenarios. Children act out real events and they also take part in fantasy play about things that are not real, such as fairies or super heroes. Children try out roles, occupations and experiences in their pretend play.
Another type of play involves Games with Rules. This can include formal games with rules or children’s own “made up” games with rules. In the beginning children often play by their own rather flexible rules! In time they also partake in more conventional games with ‘external’ rules. Even babies and toddlers can partake in these, as peek-a-boo and turn-taking games have rules.
(Types of play adapted from Aistear: The Early Childhood Curriculum Framework)
One question I get asked over and over in my work is “Do I have to play with my child all of the time?”
Like everything in life I really believe that balance is key! Children benefit greatly from plenty of free choice independent play. They also benefit from quality shared playtimes. Young babies need plenty of interaction and play in their early life, this develops their play skills. Babies really do not need many toys, the best play material they will ever have is an attuned and playful adult. Children develop independent play skills through lots and lots of interactive play with an attuned adult. When you play with your child you are supporting their development of independent play skills. Try to spend some time playing with your child and also allow ample time and opportunities for their own independent play.
Another really common question I get asked is “What toys should I buy?”
Now, this is a big one!!! There are so many toys on the market, some good, some great, and some really lacklustre ones too. Buyer beware! When selecting play materials for your child I really do recommend taking some time to source high quality play materials that will hopefully last the test of time. Think about the type of play your child is currently engaging in and see can you find play materials that will be appealing for your child and can also grow with him or her. Over time, try to equip your home or play space with materials that will enable your child to engage in all of the different types of play I listed above (Sensory, Manipulative, Creative, Construction, Small World, Pretend, and Game Play).
I love play materials that grow with your child, and open ended play materials often do this. Good quality blocks can be used initially for sensory and manipulative play, they can then be used for construction play and maybe even some creative play too, and as your child’s play expands they can even find their way into some really rich pretend play, an open ended block can become a phone, a rocket, a car, a door, basically anything!
Siobhán’s Toy Buying Guide.
To be clear this buying guide covers a wide range of toys, some which are stocked at Loved by Rascals and others which are available in other Irish stores. We have included links to all items. Remember, Less is More! By no means does any child need everything on the list, it is simply an inspiration guide to help you make choices.
A note on age guides! I know that age guides can be really helpful but please do remember they are guides, it is so important to think flexibly and creatively. When buying for your child think about YOUR child, think about his/her interests, likes and dislikes and her/his stage of development. All children are unique, they grow and develop at their own pace. Stage is so much more important than age. It is also important to remember that many good quality play materials will grow with your child, as your child grows and develops they can return to familiar play materials and play with them in different ways. Also please remember to think about the various types of play when expanding your child’s toy collection. When selecting a toy it is important to think about the type, or types, of play that it might invite and facilitate.
All Rounders for any Age:
Young babies do not need toys, they need you!! Babies thrive with interactions, face to face playtime and of course floor time.
Investing in a good quality playmat will make this easier! The Bumpa Mat is perfect for this stage and will definitely grow with your child. It is the perfect base for floor time play for babies and manipulative play for toddlers, and it will continue to be a perfect play space as your child grows and moves more into construction, small world and pretend play.
Sensory play and Manipulative Play are critically important during the first two years of life, keep this in mind when selecting play materials for a baby and toddler. And please do remember in the first few months they really do not need toys. And throughout the first two years you really will be the most important play thing! Try to keep things simple. I like to keep battery operated, all singing all dancing toys to a minimum!
· Bath Toys – Bathtime is a perfect opportunity for wonderful sensory play!
· Treasure Basket Play – Fill a basket with a variety of natural and manmade objects and let your child explore and play. The key at this stage is sensory exploration!
· Tuff Tray – Perfect for containing the messy play!!
· Sensory Balls – Colourful and high contrast ones are great.
· Sensory Vehicles – Colourful and high contrast toys that can be pushed and pulled
· Rattles – easy to grasp and manipulate
· Bucket for filling and dumping
· Cause and Effect Toys – Push a button and something happens e.g. busy box with button to push, switch, and a dial to turn
· Outdoor Play
Typically at this stage children start to play more creatively and imaginatively with toys and objects, they play around with them, figure out what they can do with them and how they can use them together. The sensory materials they previously used in a sensory, manipulative and exploratory way, will now hold more meaning and can be used together in a more creative and playful way. Between the ages of 2 and 3, toddlers tend to use their growing thinking skills to start to play pretend. Small world play props will likely be used quite a bit at this stage, as will some simple pretend play props.
Please remember to continue to offer plenty of sensory play too.
· Sand/Water Play
· Sensory Rice/Natural Bases (check out @mctivities range & ideas!)
· Play with play dough and other sensory play materials
· Continue to include sensory balls of different sizes and textures to throw, roll, chase
· Free Creative Art – paint, chalk, mark making tools
· Toy cars and other vehicles
· Large Cardboard Box
· Foam and wooden blocks
· Simple memory games e.g Orchard Tree range
At this stage children will be engaging in more imaginative and creative play. They will move into playing out more detailed stories and events.
They start by playing out things they have first-hand experience of e.g. eating dinner, brushing teeth, cooking dinner (copying something they have seen grown ups do) and then they will move into playing out things they have less experience off (perhaps eating out in a restaurant or going shopping). Eventually children will move into playing out scenes and adventures that they have little to no first-hand experience off. Focus on including a wider array of small world play props and toys that invite pretend play too. Children will also begin to show more interest in simple games with rules, and figure out how things work and what they can do with various materials. Please remember to include plenty of sensory play experiences too.
· Toy Kitchen/Mud Kitchen
· Gender neutral wooden doll’s house
· Jigsaws – start with simple 2/3 piece ones and move up according to your child’s ability
· Continue to offer creative play and sensory play opportunities
· Continue to include sensory play, toys and fidgets – these are incredibly powerful in supporting regulation. Gym balls and peanut balls are a great addition too!
At this point, pretend play will likely be in full swing!!
So plenty of pretend play materials will be great here. If
you have invested in good quality sensory, manipulative and small world play materials previously these will probably take centre stage in full on role plays. Lots of children at this stage also enjoy engaging in STEM type play – science, technology, engineering, and math. Please remember to continue to offer plenty of sensory play experiences too.
· More complex construction play sets and materials
· Magnets, magnetic tiles etc,,
· Pretend play materials similar to above e.g. doctor’s kit
· Doll Play – Lottie Dolls
· Continue to expand small world and fantasy play materials – consider adding in some fantasy and superhero figures.
Continue to support pretend play by adding to your pretend play supplies or supporting your child to use the materials you already have creatively. Include plenty of materials to support creative play, think about including creative materials that will enable your child to express him/herself through art, movement, and music. More formal “Games with Rules” also tend to be pretty popular at this stage, as do STEM based play activities. Give your child plenty of time and space to engage in independent play and play with friends but please do continue to spend quality time playing and being creative together.
· Creative Play Sets – e.g. Koko cardboard, DIY fruits etc…
· Doll play – Lottie Dolls
· Creative arts materials – paints, clay, pastels, canvases etc…
· Gym Balls
CAUTION: These lists are not designed to be prescriptive or restrictive. They are simply ideas. All children develop and play in their own way. Follow your child’s lead. If in doubt, pop onto the Bumpa Mat and watch your child’s play. He/she will show you the way!
We have linked most products from our favourite Irish shops. If you would like to browse the recommended shops, the list and links are below:
Considerations for children with additional needs: All children are unique, they grow and develop at their own pace. Stage is so much more important than age. Follow your child. If you are concerned about your child’s play skills, or any area of their development, reach out and seek professional support.
If you would like to know more about Siobhán and her work at the Children’s Therapy Centre you can find all information here: www.childrenstherapycentre.ie If you would like to find out more information about Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy and Play Therapy, or would like to source a therapist for your child, you can do so here: www.iaptp.ie
If you got to the end of the blog...well done! It's packed full of incredible information.
If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to contact me, via email or on socials. A huge thank you to Siobhan for all the time and effort she put in!