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Age Appropriate Play and Learning

Dear Debi,
I’m a stay-at-home mom with a 2-year-old son. What kinds of things should he play with to help him learn? Can you please help me come up with some activities that will surely entertain him and help him develop the skills of a child his age? Thank you!
Marie, Mother of 2-year-old Gavin
Debi's Tips
Debi Gutierrez
Debi Gutierrez
  • Focus on what your child can do with the toy
  • Choose toys based on your child’s developmental level & interest
  • Look for toys that let your child use his imagination
  • Provide a variety of toys and materials
Expert Advice
Greg Uba
Greg Uba
Early Childhood Educator
What material is age-appropriate for a child is really defined by each individual child. If the child is interested in it and can use it in a challenging way, then it’s age-appropriate. The role of the teacher or the parent is to help the child decide what they’re interested in. Materials that are fascinating to them or that are challenging are age-appropriate. It’s hard to say that at a certain age, this is the specific right material to have.

There are a few things to keep in mind though. For younger kids, stay away from small pieces and sharp edges. You should be more selective with cutting tools. You’ll do more tearing as opposed to cutting with younger children, but it will represent the same concept. The point is to make sure the child is interested and challenged by the material.

Age-appropriate materials and learning tools don’t have to be expensive. For instance, you can get by with sand and water or dirt and seed in the backyard. Stores market items as “educational toys” in order to sell you some computer or technical stuff. It’s better to look at toys because of their “play” value – not educational value. “Play” value gives you more bang for your buck.

When kids play with age appropriate toys, they can get support for all of their intelligences. Good materials give kids multiple ways of learning. For example, blocks can teach geometry, math, counting, and more. The learning experience can expand over time as the child grows and develops so that the toy alone doesn’t determine where the learning stops.

It’s critical to choose open-ended play materials because then the children are not looking for the toy to provide entertainment. The more the toy defines the play, the less the child’s imagination comes into play. With open-ended materials, kids have a greater sense of ownership and responsibility because they have helped to develop the toy.

It’s important for a provider or parent to have a variety of toys and materials. Outdoor play is good: sand, water, mud, trees leaves, branches, insects. Natural materials are an excellent source of things that kids can play with. Clay and play dough are good because, for example, clay is harder to mold so it allows kids to use their motor skills. Corn starch and water is also another good sensory activity. For babies, scarves are good if you choose different textures. The child can touch the scarf or throw it. You can even get old Kleenex boxes and have them pull the scarves through them. One-year-olds can tear newspapers to help them transition into scissor use in pre-school.

Remember, when choosing toys and materials, pick something that’s valuable and has multiple uses for all the kids in your care, including children who may have special needs.
Child Care provider Comments
Letycia Gomez
Letycia Gomez
Mother of Two
I would ask Marie what kinds of games and activities she is playing with her son, in order to assess what other activities would be good. I want to know if she is using manipulatives or common household items that help stimulate a child's development. For example, to help her child with counting, she can involve him in daily activities like counting food, handing out cheerios, showing measurements by pouring ingredients. With colors, she can try getting index cards and put flaps of color felt on them and have him touch the felt.
Clarissa August
Clarissa August
Family child care provider for 21 years
I also take the kids on a nature walk and have them collect leaves and feathers. I put the materials in a “feely bag”, where they reach in and try to tell you what it is. They can feel different textures, so it’s a sensory experience that helps develop their motor skills. They learn best when they see it, touch it, and verbalize it.
Verdis Ferraro
Verdis Ferraro
Child care provider for 23 years
Many age appropriate and educational materials can be made at home with materials around the house. For example, you can do so much with just pasta. One thing I did with my 4-year-olds was colored pasta with rubbing alcohol and food coloring. Then I took out four bowls and put different colored paper circles in each bowl and asked the kids to match the colored pasta with the colored bowls. Then we took a muffin tin and put a number in each one, and had the kids put the right number of pasta in each one. You can use rocks, macaroni, beans, anything really, and have kids match it up to the right number or color.

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Topic: Play & Creativity
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