Hesperian Health Guides

Early Play Activities and Toys

Play is the way children learn best. So try to turn every activity you do with a child into some kind of play or game.

It is not what you do, but how you do it that makes something play. As long as it is fun and the child wants to do it, it is play. But if it stops being fun, or the child does it only because ‘he has to’, it stops being play. Small children (and big children who learn slowly) only stay interested in the same thing for a short time. The child soon gets bored and stops learning. Therefore, for activities to be play and stay play,

1. continue with the same activity for a short time only, and
2. look for ways to keep changing the activity a little so that it is always new and interesting.

Both boys in these pictures are doing the same learning activity. For one, it is play. For the other, it is not. Can you say why?
a man with a stick speaking to a boy who is moving items from 1 container to another.
Hurry up! You did it better an hour ago!
a girl speaking to a boy while they both move items from 1 container to another.
Now let's do it by rolling them down this tube. Your turn

Not all play has to be organized or planned; often the child learns most when it is not. Play needs some aspect of adventure, surprise, and freedom. It is important that a child learn to play with other children. But it is also important that she be given the chance and encouraged to play alone. She needs to learn to enjoy and live with other people—and with herself.

We do not talk much about play separately, because mostly it is not a separate activity. It is the best way to do almost any activity. For this reason, in this whole chapter—and book—we often give ideas for turning exercise, therapy, and learning into play.

Play activities, like other activities, should be picked so that they ‘fit’ a child’s level of development and help him move one step farther. They should be HARD ENOUGH TO BE INTERESTING, but EASY ENOUGH TO BE DONE WELL. For example:

If the child is at the level of a very young baby, play games that help him use his eyes and hold up his head.
a boy aitting and laughing; an older child speaks to him while holding a mirror.
Ha ha.
Look at yourself. Lift your head. Good boy!
If the child is at the level where she sits, but finds it hard to keep her balance or open her knees, look for play that helps her with these.
2 children speaking while they ride a "horse" made from a log.
Go horsey go!
Now our horse is going to tip from side to side!
Later we'll see if you can ride him without holding on!

If in preparation for standing and walking the child needs practice shifting weight from one knee to the other, you might try imitation games. Here are 2 ideas:

1 child standing and speaking to 3 others who are on their hands and knees.
Simon says: lift your right leg!
a child speaking while pretending to be a dog and lifting 1 leg.
Bow wow!

Toys and Playthings to Stimulate a Child's Senses

Play is more important than toys. Almost anything—pots, flowers, sandals, fruit, keys, an old horseshoe—can be used as a toy, if it is used in play.

Toys—or ‘playthings’—offer stimulation for a child, both when she plays by herself and when she plays with others. Many simple things in the home can be used as toys, or can be turned into them.

Hanging toys for baby to admire, touch, and handle can be made of many things.
hanging toys made from simple materials.
thread spools
slices of plastic bottle
metal bottle caps
top half of plastic bottle
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stiff wire
pieces of bright colored paper or tinfoil
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Caring for babies provides a learning experience that combines work and play for the child who is gentle.
CAUTION! Take care that toys are clean and safe for the child.

Here are a few examples of interesting toys. Use your imagination and the resources of your family to make toys.

Toys for Touching

soft clothes or blanket, baby animals, corn on the cob, finger paints, inner tubes for swimming, bathing, nuts and bolts, toes and fingers, seed pods, mushy food, cloth doll, gourds, sand, clay, string, chain, pulley, gears, rocks, beads, fruits, mud, flowers, dough DVC Ch35 Page 317-6.png DVC Ch35 Page 317-4.png
illustration of the below: toys tied to strings.
For children who have trouble controlling their movements, and often drop or lose their toys, it may help to tie the toys with string, as shown here.

Toys to Taste or Smell

foods, flowers, fruits, animals, spices, perfumes
fruits, a flower, a fish, a pig.

Toys for Seeing

mirrors, colors, colored paper or tinfoil, daily family activity, puppets, old magazines with pictures, crystal glass pieces (rainbow maker), flashlight (touch)
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finger puppets

Toys for Balance

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swings, hammocks, seesaws, rocking horses

Toys for Hearing

rattles, guitar, flutes, drum, bells, bracelets on baby’s wrist and ankles that tinkle when baby moves
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marimba or xylophone, wind chimes, whistles, pet birds, animal sounds, seashells or other echo toys, talking, laughing, singing
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a pan as a drum

2 children using a "telephone" made from tin cans on a tightly stretched  string.
Hello, Lupe.
Hi, Maria.
tin can telephone
string or wire, stretched tight

Toys to Develop a Child's Mind and Hand-Eye Coordination

Learning to fit things into things

Start simple — dropping objects into a jar, then taking them out again. As the child develops, make things more complex.
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a child placing rings onto corncobs attached to a wooden base.
rings of wood, woven string, baked clay, old bones, or buckles
base of wood or several layers of cardboard
wood or corncob

Note: Rings can be of different sizes, colors or shapes so that the child can also learn to match these.

To help develop controlled movement of the hands and arms, the child can move beads or blocks along a rod or wire.
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Using animals or funny figures makes the exercise more fun. Other children will be more likely to join in the game.
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Matching games

The child can match objects of similar shape, size, and color. Small pegs glued onto cut-out pieces help develop fine hand control.
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cut-out shapes with small pegs glued to 1 side.
Start with simpler games with square or round figures. Then progress to more complicated games with different shaped figures.
a child putting round and square objects into round and square holes in the top of a cardboard box.
ball, round fruit, or pill bottle
cardboard box
blocks or match boxes
blocks of different shapes and colors made to fit through holes in a wooden lid on a big tin can.
a big tin can
3 blocks of different colors and shapes
lid of wood, or layers of cardboard
lid (upside down)
Inside ring tightly fits into can.

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Jigsaw and block puzzles and building blocks also help a child learn how shapes and colors fit together.

Many more ideas for simple toys are included in Chapter 49, “A Children’s Workshop For Making Toys.”

This page was updated:27 May 2020