Parents often feel the pressure to make sure their toddlers and preschoolers are learning the skills they will need when they enter school, but you can relax and just have fun — many of the most important skills young children need are learned through their play. According to Education.com, “play is the foundation for all learning for young children.” So as long as you give your little one time to explore freely and creatively, she will get the learning opportunities she needs.
Pretending helps children to try out new vocabulary and practice new language skills they are developing. As your tot acts out scenarios with his toy cars, dinosaurs or dolls, he will use words and phrases he hears in his everyday life, giving him a chance to practice the grammatical structure of language. As you play with him, introduce new ideas for the toys to act out or ask questions to prompt him to explain more about what is happening. This will allow him an opportunity to use new vocabulary and practice using his language skills to communicate meaning.
Children need to have many opportunities for open-ended play, or they will lose the ability to entertain themselves without being given instruction. Provide your toddler or preschooler with a wide variety of toys she can use in dramatic play, such as play dishes and food, dress-up clothes, a doctor’s kit or a toy workbench, and let her lead. Don’t worry if she’s not using the props in the traditional way — just watch and listen as she comes up with ideas on how to pretend with them. Give your little one a variety of arts and crafts supplies like crayons, markers, stickers and scraps of paper and see what she comes up with. It doesn’t have to be a perfectly completed project to be a beautiful masterpiece in her eyes.
You may not realize it, but your child is practicing his mathematical skills just by playing with blocks and puzzles. As little ones use blocks to build structures, they are practicing some problem solving skills as they learn how to make their tower balance or discover that they need two smaller blocks to equal the same size as a larger one. Puzzles are also an ideal tool for learning about sizes and shapes. Children have to think about which shape will fit in each spot and they are learning that a whole is made up of parts, an important mathematical skill.
Many of your toddler’s or preschooler’s favorite activities might also be helping her develop some of the physical skills she is learning. Playing with balls can help her develop some large muscle coordination, or gross motor skills, as she learns to throw and catch or kick at a target. Her balance is also developing, so give her opportunities to practice walking along a narrow low wall or see how long she can stand on one foot. Fine motor skills, which use the small muscles of the hands, are important to build before entering school, so find ways for her to practice stringing and lacing. Give her pipe cleaners or yarn and some large beads and have her make you some jewelry (under supervision of course), or punch holes along the edge of stiff paper and have her lace a string through them.