What we call playing is really the way children learn. With toys and their imaginations they practise all the skills they’ll need as they grow up. The more they play, the more they learn and the best thing about it is that they love it.

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 Young children find it hard to play alone. They need attention from someone who can play with them. Gradually they’ll learn to entertain themselves for some of the time, but first they need to learn how to do that.
Fortunately, children learn from everything that’s going on around them, and everything they do. When you’re washing up, your toddler can stand next to you on a chair and wash the saucepan lids; when you cook, make sure your baby can see and talk to you as you work. The times when they’re not learning much are the times when they’re bored. That’s as true for babies as of older children.
So what really matters?
· Find a lot of different things for your child to look at, think about, and do.
· Make what you’re doing fun and interesting for your child, so you can get it done.
· Make some time to give all your attention to what your child wants to do.
· Talk about anything and everything, even about the washing-up or what to put on the shopping list, so that you share as much as possible.
· Find a place and time when your child can learn how to use his or her body by running, jumping and climbing. This is especially important if you don’t have much room at home.
· Find other people who can spend time with your child at those times when you really do need to attend to something else.
Toy safety
· It is best to buy toys that carry the British Standard Kitemark or the Lion mark, or CE mark, as these conform to safety standards.
· Take care if you buy toys from car boot sales, market stalls or second hand toys as these may not conform to safety standards and could be dangerous.
· Take safety measures such as ‘Not suitable for a child under 36 months’ seriously (0–3 sign). This sign warns that a toy is unsuitable for a child under three because of small parts.
· Check that the toy has no sharp edges that could hurt your child, or small parts that your child could put in his or her mouth and choke on.
Toys for children with special needs
Toys for children with special needs should match his or her mental age and ability. They should be brightly coloured and offer sound and action. If a toy made for a younger child, is used by an older child, the strength of the toy should be taken into account.
Children who have a visual impairment will need toys with different textures to explore with their hands and mouth. A child who has a hearing impairment will need toys to stimulate language.
Making time
Some things do have to happen at certain times, and your child does slowly have to learn about that. But when you’re with your child try not to work to a strict timetable. Your child is unlikely to fit in with it and then you’ll both get frustrated. A lot of things can be pushed around to suit the mood of you and your child. There’s no rule that says the washing-up has to be done before you go to the playground, especially if the sun’s shining and your child’s bursting with energy.
Keep your child fit
Children want to use their bodies to crawl, walk, run, jump and climb. The more opportunity you can give them, the happier they’ll be, and you’ll probably find that they sleep better and are more cheerful and easy going when they’ve had the opportunity to run off some energy. At the same time you’ll be helping their muscle development and general fitness and, if they start to see outdoor activities and sports as a part of their lives, you’ll be laying down the habits that will keep them fitter as adults. Make time for your children to exercise.
· Allow your baby to lie and kick his or her legs.
· Make your floor a safe place for a crawler to move around.
· Make time for your toddler to walk with you rather than using the buggy.
· Take toddlers and young children to the park to try climbing and swinging or just so that they have a safe space to run.
· Find out what’s on for parents and babies at the local leisure centre.
· Take your baby swimming. There is no need to wait until your child has had his or her immunisations.


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When children play they’re learning what they want. Often these will also be the things you want them to learn, but for some things they may need extra encouragement, like using the potty (toilet training), washing or dressing themselves, learning what not to touch, and where it’s not safe to run. It’s worth thinking about how you do it.
toilet training
- Wait until you think your child is ready. Forcing something too soon usually ends in failure. You get cross and upset, your child gets cross and upset, and the whole thing becomes impossible. If it doesn’t work out, leave it for a few weeks and try again.
- Try not to make it seem too important. Your child may learn to eat with a spoon because it’s fun, but still want to be fed when he or she is tired, or may enjoy the first few times on the potty because you’re so pleased, and then get bored with the idea. In time he or she will see that it is worth while learning to be more grown-up and independent.
- Keep it safe. If your child is under three years old he or she can’t really understand why not to touch your stereo or pull flowers off your pot plants, so keep things you don’t want touched well out of the way and you’ll both be less frustrated. Time enough to learn about not touching when your child can understand why.
- Be encouraging. Your happiness is your child’s best reward for good behaviour. If you give your child a big smile, a cuddle or praise when he or she does something right your child is much more likely to try doing it again. Giving your child attention and praise for doing something right works much better than telling him or her off for doing something wrong.
- Don’t ask for perfection or for instant success. It’s safest to expect everything to take much longer than you’d hoped.
- Set an example. Whatever it may look like, your child does want to be like you and do what you do. So seeing you wash in the bath, brush your teeth or use the toilet does help.
- Avoid fuss and confrontation. Once something gets blown up, it can take longer and be much more difficult for everybody to calm down.
- Be firm. Children need you to decide some things for them, and need you to stick to your decisions. They need some firm guidelines. So try not to waver. You might start something like potty training, decide your child isn’t ready, and give up for a while. That’s fine. But a child who is in nappies one day, out the next and back in them the next, is bound to get confused.
- Be consistent. For the same reason, it’s important that everybody involved in looking after your child is teaching more or less the same things in more or less the same way. If you and your partner, or you and your childminder, do things very differently, your child won’t learn so easily and may well play you off against each other.
- Do what’s right for your child, for you and for the way you live. It doesn’t matter what the child next door can or can’t do. Don’t compete and don’t ask your child to compete.
No parent is perfect, and some children seem to find these lessons particularly difficult to learn. See dealing with difficult behaviour.



Learning how to make friends is one of the most important things your child will do. If your child learns early how to get on well with others he or she will get off to a better start at school.
It’s never too soon to start, especially if yours is an only child. Even babies and small children like other children’s company, although at first they play alongside each other rather than with each other. Ask your health visitor if there’s a new parents group meeting in your area. Getting together with other parents can be good for you too.