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The importance of play in childcare

The importance of play in childcare


By  Ruth Kloppers (Help At Home)

       Play is not just about fun – it’s about learning, developing the mind, building self-awareness

and self-confidence, and developing social and physical skills.

It is therefore absolutely crucial that whoever is tasked with caring for your baby, toddler or child, is not only equipped with the ability to nurture and tend to physical needs of the child, but also be able to mentally stimulate and develop your child.

It’s not uncommon to hear caregiver’s say “My baby is only 1 month old, he’s too small to play now”. Untrue, from day 1 your child can be effectively stimulated. And the more you develop from early on – the easier it becomes for the child to learn and grow later.

Think of your 5 senses: Taste, Touch, Smell, Hear, and Sight. Yes, a Newborn baby may not be fully utilizing his senses yet, but there are a host of simple activities that can be done to develop and stimulate even the smallest baby – such as sounds (hear), and baby massage (touch).

There are two types of play:

 Structured Play is part of a routine – It can happen indoors or outdoors. It is organised, happens at a specific time and usually led by an adult. These are generally the kind of activities that would happen in a class environment, such as swimming lessons (familiarity with water), dance, storytelling, card games, board games, sports games.

Unstructured Play is more spontaneous – it is the play that ‘just happens’, and depends on what the child finds interesting at the time. These are activities like role-playing games, impromptu dancing and drawing, exploration games etc…

Naturally, as your child grows, the way he plays will change and develop as well. He will become more physically involved in activities, and his imaginary bounds will grow. He will, likely, need more space to play, as his motor development expands.

Play Routine: With all the nannies I train and place, my recommendation is to encourage your nanny or caregiver to create at least two time-slots for play in your baby or toddler’s daily routine. One slot can be structured play – where you have decided what activity Nanny should focus on for a few days – and a second slot for Unstructured Play – where Nanny will be present, but allow baby or child to play with his toys in his way, doing an activity that he wants to do, how he wants to do it – but with Nanny there to ensure he is always safe.

Here are some basic play and activity ideas, to get you going:

Play with Newborns and Babies:

Naturally, they are too small to play by themselves, to the biggest toy they have right now is YOU. Thinking of the senses and skills newborns and babies use, make games from things like:

  • Music, Rhymes, Bells, containers filled with things like rice/cellophane/pasta are all great ways to encourage your baby and child to listen and experience different sounds.
  • Colours, Shapes, Textures (like a fluffy toy/sandpaper/jelly/ice/satin), Warm objects (not hot!), cold objects etc… are all ways to get baby to develop his tactile skills. They will also encourage baby to touch and grasp objects – which, in turn, develops his motor skills as well.
  • Baby Massage – during change times, or after a bath, spend time massaging each area of the baby. Start with toes and feet – name the areas, repeat the same name a few times. Then move to legs, arms, chest, back, hands, etc…. Use different touches, like rubbing, tickling etc… and name the areas as you go along.
  • Tummy Time – particularly for smaller infants. The first time, baby will be unsure about being placed on his tummy, as this is a new sensation. But encourage baby to do so. This will strengthen his neck muscles, as well as his back and leg muscles. In doing so, you are developing the areas he needs for crawling and walking.
  • Crossing The Midline – It has been scientifically proven that there is a correlation between dyslexia, and children that don’t “cross the midline” well. This means that, for example, using your RIGHT hand to touch your LEFT foot, and vice versa. Crossing the midline encourages both sides of the brain to work at the same time. So, while dressing or massaging baby, you can do activities where baby touches left hand with right foot, and vice versa; or touch left shoulder with right hand etc…

Toddler Play:

Your child is moving now, and so should Nanny! So get up, and get mobile. Here are some great ideas:

  • Something to push – you can use fancy walkers, or something simple like a box, bucket, trolley, dolly pram. This encourages child’s mobility, but also his perception of movement, force and cause-effect (I push, it moves).
  • Hopscotch, skipping ropes, climbing ropes – encourages skipping, jumping, and using upper body strength to pull himself up.
  • Hoops, balls – throw the ball in to the hoop – develops aim and eye-hand coordination
  • Finger Painting, mud-pies – develops creativity and tactile development
  • Reciting – learning rhymes, colours, shapes, numbers, doing puzzles – these develop cognitive development as well as speech

Pre-School Children:

  • CREATE!! Use everyday household items like Macaroni, String, yoghurt containers, wooden spoons, old papers, etc… and create pictures, jewellery and art from them
  • Puzzles – I cannot emphasise enough how important puzzles are. Children that can “problem-solve” from early are known to do better at school, and be able to better structure their own work.
  • Music – have a dance-a-thon, try out creative moves (robot dance, dinosaur dance, ballerina, etc). Learn songs and rhymes, and even make up your own words to songs you have known before.
  • Balls – kick, throw, roll – get your child to use both his left and right hands.
  • Balance – draw a line, or put out a string, and get child to walk on it without stepping off.
  • Water-play – (only if you or nanny can swim too!) teach the child to swim and be watersafe. Teach them to hold onto the edge of the pool, and us            ing their hands, move their way around the pool (monkey-walking).

School-Going Children:

One of the things that irks me most, is when I meet a nanny and say “So, what activities would you do with the child in the afternoon?” and the response I receive is, “No, the child was big and in school, so I never had to look after him.”  Yes you do! There are still lots of games and activities to do with older children. Encourage your nanny to not only supervise homework, but to get involved in games as well – and this does NOT include watching tv.

  • Old linen, furniture – can be used for making a camp/fort in the garden or lounge. Great imaginations will create little empires!
  • Role play – pretend you are someone else for an hour or two, and the child pretends as well. Also, put some groceries on the diningroom table, with a calculator, and let the child play “shopkeeper” while you shop. Play doctor, vet, fireman… the options are endless and it will encourage children to plan for their future.
  • Board Games – play age appropriate board games that stretch the mind.


So come on! Get out there and play with these kiddies! Let your inner child go free!