Why is it important for children to get a balanced play diet?

In the same way that nutrition is about getting a balance between the food groups, a healthy play diet requires a good combination of all the different types of play.

Every activity has different benefits to child development – painting is great for creativity and self-expression, while doing a jigsaw puzzle helps develop logical thinking and problem solving skills. A range of different play activities means children get a little bit of everything, supporting well-rounded development.

Not everything has to have a purpose though. Chocolate provides little nutritional value, but it’s great as an occasional treat. In the same way, watching TV or playing a computer game can be enjoyed guilt-free as long as this is part of a play diet filled with free and active play.

Toddlers and pre-schoolers

At this age playing is a full-time occupation. A lot of what a child learns will come from their play activities, and this will provide the foundation for developing skills as they get older. Children will need to master basic skills to broaden their abilities – for example, learning to grip and control the movement with their hand (known as fine motor skills) is needed for everything from self-care to writing.

Active Free Play

Benefits of Play: This is good exercise and strengthens the large muscles in children’s arms and legs, needed for advancing their physical skills and smaller movements (e.g. for writing) too.

Suggested Products: Ride-ons, trikes, small slides, balls

 

Imaginative Play

Benefits of Play: Children will use pretend play to make sense of the world around them. They will often play imaginatively together so this is also important for developing social and communication skills.

Suggested Products: Water or sand play, small world toys, role play toys (e.g. play kitchen), fancy dress, toy vehicles

 

Team Games

Benefits of Play: Simple sports (like playing catch) are good for exercise, while playing with others helps children start to learn valuable social skills like taking turns.

Suggested Products: Balls (large and small)

 

Board Games

Benefits of Play: Simple board and card games can help children learn to take turns and share, and some have additional educational value (like counting spaces to move).

Suggested Products: Age-appropriate board games (very simple rules), card matching, balance games

 

Construction

Benefits of Play: This is good for developing small and large muscles, and hand-eye coordination. It also helps children think logically to build successful structures and lets them experiment, e.g. seeing how the blocks fall when you knock a tower down.

Suggested Products: Wooden building blocks, connecting blocks that are easy to join and pull apart

 

Reading

Benefits of Play: Being read stories is a great way to encourage a love of reading while promoting language skills. It is also good for developing listening and attention skills, as well as inspiring children’s imaginations.

Suggested Products: Story books with interactive features (e.g. lift-the-flap, fabrics to touch)

 

Creative Play

Benefits of Play: Making music or art is ideal for self-expression and lets children explore different ways they can make sounds or patterns. Using tools such as a paintbrush is good for encouraging the grip and control needed for writing too.

Suggested Products: Shakers, drums, xylophones, tambourines, flutes, finger paints, large paintbrushes, easy hold crayons, modelling dough

 

Educational Toys & Games (inc. Digital)

Benefits of Play: Children at this age don’t need to be bombarded with learning but familiarising them with letters, shapes and numbers can build their confidence ready for school.

Suggested Products: Letter blocks, shape tracing, shape sorters, card matching, apps that name letters/shape/numbers out loud, toys and apps for counting, interactive eBooks

 

Quiet/ Solitary Play

Benefits of Play: Playing alone is good for developing independence and lets children go at their own pace, while encouraging skills like concentration.

Suggested Products: Jigsaw puzzles, small world toys, interactive books (e.g. lift-the-flap)

 

Passive Screen Time

Benefits of Play: A little bit of screen time is fun for children, and gives them (and parents!) the chance to relax a bit.

Suggested Products: Imaginative play apps

5 to 12 Year Olds

As children get older, the way they play changes a lot, but it’s still important for them to enjoy a variety of different activities.

Active Free Play

Benefits of Play: This is good exercise for keeping growing bodies fit and healthy. Children will often play together, so this is also important for developing social skills and making friends.

Suggested Products: Bikes, scooters, large playground equipment

 

Imaginative Play

Benefits of Play: This allows children to be creative, and can often be social too. It also encourages skills like problem solving and logical thinking, as children will combine different props to serve a purpose for their imaginative play (e.g. constructing a house for their character).

Suggested Products: Detailed small world toys (e.g. a miniature zoo with animals, food, visitors, souvenirs, signs)

 

Team Games

Benefits of Play: These help children learn not just how to play together, but how to make the most of each other’s skills, consider other people’s feelings, and communicate effectively. They can also be good for learning strategic thinking.

Suggested Products: Sports equipment (e.g. goalposts, hoops), balls (large and small)

 

Board Games

Benefits of Play: These can be fun for different ages so are brilliant for encouraging families to play together, developing social skills and building relationships. They help children learn about friendly competition, and how to approach goals strategically.

Suggested Products: Age-appropriate board games (rule complexity depends on the age), games requiring strategy and planning, time pressure games (e.g. snap)

 

Construction

Benefits of Play: Building structures helps children learn a bit about science and engineering, by experimenting with three-dimensional models.

Suggested Products: Detailed connecting blocks, construction toys with working features (e.g. levers and gears), sets with designs to copy

 

Reading

Benefits of Play: This is a really important skill for learning new information and can also be a fun hobby for children to explore their imaginations. 

Suggested Products: Age-appropriate books, fiction/fantasy, familiar topics (e.g. bullying)

 

Creative Play

Benefits of Play: This is an enjoyable way for children to show their personality and make a final piece (such as a dance routine or a drawing) they can be proud of, developing confidence.

Suggested Products: Arts and craft sets that make it easy to create a final product, crafts that can be personalised, musical instruments

 

Educational Toys & Games (inc. Digital)

Benefits of Play: Outside of school, a small amount of educational play can support children’s learning. This is particularly good for areas that a child is struggling with, and can make learning more fun.

Suggested Products: Science kits, spelling games, maths games, subject specific apps with pieces of information about the topic

 

Quiet/ Solitary Play

Benefits of Play: These activities are a good way to improve concentration, and encourage children to solve problems independently.

Suggested Products: Puzzles, age-appropriate arts and crafts (i.e. that can be done without help)

 

Passive Screen Time

Benefits of Play: Fun for fun’s sake lets children have a bit of a break, particularly if they have had a heavy day at school.

Suggested Products: App games (e.g. platformers)

 

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