Skip to content Skip to cookie consent
Skip to content


Playing with babies and young children

Children play because it is fun, but play is also key to their learning and development

2007 Available in Portuguese, Spanish, French and English

Photo: Marcus Perkins, Tearfund

From: Family life – Footsteps 72

Helping to build strong and healthy families

Children play because it is fun, but play is also key to their learning and development. Play helps them to learn new skills, communicate, gain confidence, relate to other people and find out about themselves and the world. All children – both girls and boys – need the same opportunities for play and interaction with family members and friends. Listening to and responding to young children is one of the most important things that adults and older children can do. When we do this well, children learn that what they say and do is important. This makes them feel good about themselves and gives them the confidence to try new things.

Every child is different and develops at a different rate. Babies who have not had enough to eat or have been ill need extra help. Children with disabilities should not be excluded. They may need extra support and encouragement to overcome difficulties in moving or hearing or seeing. They may not do all of the things that other babies and young children do at a similar age but they will learn to do many things, if they are given appropriate support and stimulation.

Older children usually like to play with and help babies and younger children. They can help younger children to develop by being there to play with them, to listen to them and to support them when they try out new activities, and to make sure they are safe. Older children can help to make everyday activities – going to the market, preparing food – fun and interesting for young children.

Remember: it is important that older children are not overburdened with adult responsibilities for caring for babies and younger children. Older children also need time for play and their own development must not be neglected.

Activities for babies

Babies need to be stimulated and responded to from the time they are born. This can be done through play, sharing activities and talking, laughing and singing together. If a baby makes a sound or gesture, older children can repeat these back to the baby. This is how babies learn to communicate. Warm and loving relationships are vital to a child’s physical, social and emotional development. Holding, cuddling, smiling at and talking to the baby helps him or her to grow and feel secure. Here are some suggestions for play activities that caregivers or older children could use to play with babies up to about two years old.

  • Tie or hang objects like spoons close to where the baby lies so that he or she can reach and hold on to them.
  • Say the baby’s name or clap hands so that the baby will look to see where the sound comes from.
  • Sing to her and rock and move the baby about to the rhythm of a song.
  • Carry her about and tell her the names of objects. Even if a baby does not respond at first to this kind of stimulation it is important to continue talking and singing to her.
  • As soon as the baby begins to understand and use language they like to play games using words: ‘Where’s my nose?’ or ‘Find the cup’.
  • Give her smooth objects and encourage her to give them back and to pass them from one hand to another. Make sure the objects are big enough to prevent choking.
  • Play games with the baby’s fingers and toes.
  • Encourage her to clap her hands and wave ‘Good-bye’.
  • Make her a soft ball to throw.
  • Give her two objects and hold on to two more. Bang the objects together and see if the baby can copy it.
  • Give her a box and things of different sizes to put in and take out.
  • Hide something under a cup or piece of cloth as she watches and see if she can find it.
  • Make a doll out of old cloth, filled with bits of cloth or plastic packing materials, dry grass or paper. Be sure you sew it up carefully. Tell the baby stories about the doll.
  • Draw in the sand or mud with a stick or a finger and see if the baby can copy it.
  • Show the baby an animal or a picture of an animal, make the sound the animal makes and encourage her to repeat the sounds.
  • Encourage her to feed herself.

As the baby grows, play games to encourage her to crawl, stand and walk. Make a toy on wheels that a toddler can pull or push as she walks. You can make a roll-along toy with a round tin and wire from a coat hanger. You can thread together cotton reels or old film cases filled with things that rattle for the toddler to pull along. Plastic bottles or soft drink tins also roll well. Make sure there are no sharp surfaces. If the baby cannot move without help because of a disability, two children can support her to crawl with a band of cloth around her waist and use this to lift her onto her hands and knees. Another child can encourage her to crawl by holding out a toy or some fruit. Remember to show the baby that you are pleased when she tries to do and say new things. Praise her with words and by smiling, patting or hugging her.

Activities for young children

Photo: Jim Loring, Tearfund

Photo: Jim Loring, Tearfund

Photo: Richard Hanson, Tearfund

Photo: Richard Hanson, Tearfund

Water, sand and mud
Children will play for hours with water and sand, especially if they have a few materials like different sized plastic bottles, tins or gourds to make the play more interesting. Holes can be put in these containers. Thin bamboo, banana stems or hollow reeds make good pipes. They can be used with soap and water for blowing bubbles. Tins, seed pods and pieces of wood can make boats. Children can experiment to see which things float and which sink.

Using the senses
Games can be played with scraps of cloth, shells or stones put into bags for little children to identify by touch. Be sure that they are not too small, sharp or poisonous but are clean and interesting to see and feel. Scraps of soap, onion, flowers or anything else with a strong smell can be wrapped in paper with tiny holes in it. Children can guess what it is by smell. Other things can be put into tins to identify by sound when the tin is shaken. This could be fun for children who have difficulty in seeing.

Pretend games
Children love to pretend that they are mother, father or teacher. Adults or older children could supply them with materials to make these games more interesting, such as things for making a house, preparing food, making dolls, playing at shopping or going to market and dressing-up clothes. Children only need a little help to dress up. Paper, leaves, sticks and bits of cloth can be used to make hats, dresses and other pretend clothes. Make toy houses out of clay or cardboard boxes. Make people out of straw or clay. Put clothes on them. If the pieces can be moved around they will be more fun to play with.

Drawing and painting
Most children love to draw and paint. Scrap paper, cardboard and newspapers can be used to paint and draw on. Glue can be made from flour and a little water. Older children could make a book from an old box or bits of cardboard, using their own pictures, family photos or cut-out pictures, and encourage younger children to name what they see.

Talking and listening
Listening to children is one of the most important things that we can do to help their development. Older children can collect stories, songs and riddles for younger children. Grandparents often know good stories. Find opportunities to encourage younger children to talk for themselves. Younger children will grow in confidence if they are listened to and their ideas are valued. It is important to try to answer their many questions.

Active play
Young children need to be very active. They like to run around and play chasing games. Older children can help them to run and jump, throw and catch, skip, climb and slide. When younger children can throw a little, older children can make or find things for them to aim at. They can learn to throw things into a box or knock down a can or stick. Fallen trees and steep banks are good places for older children to climb and slide down. Simple swings can be made with rope and old tyres, which are also good to roll and climb through. A child with difficulties in moving will enjoy the experience of being in a swing or hammock. Children could get help to make a cart with wheels to ensure that children who cannot walk because of a disability can explore with other children.

Article compiled by Maggie Sandilands using information from Early Years – Children Promote Health: Case Studies on Child-to-Child and Early Childhood Development, published by The Child-to-Child Trust. See Resources page for details on how to order.

Finding play materials

Excellent playthings can be found in the community and made with materials that cost nothing. Children are very good at finding playthings and thinking of new ways to play with them.

  • At home: sand, gourds, tins, boxes, pots and lids.
  • From shops: scraps of cloth, packing material, plastic bottles, bottle tops, cartons and paper.
  • In the community: water, sand, stones, clay, sticks and seed pods.
  • From local craftsmen and women: scraps of cloth, wood, metal and leather.
  • From local musicians: materials and advice for making simple musical instruments.
  • From older people: local traditional stories, songs, dances and games.

Everyday activities, such as helping to prepare food for the family, provide many opportunities for learning about colour, shape and how to sort, match, count and so on. For example, younger children could help select eating utensils or sort vegetables for cooking. Teachers or caregivers can help older children use scraps of cloth, paper, wood and other material to make mobiles, rattles and soft toys for babies, puzzles, hoops and rollers for toddlers, and picture books and word and counting games for older children.

Safety in play

Older children and caregivers should make sure that play materials for young children are safe. Avoid:

  • Things with sharp edges.
  • Small pieces that young children could swallow or put in their noses or ears.
  • Plastic bags that can suffocate little children.
  • Lead paint.

When young children play out of doors it is important to check that places where they run and climb are safe and that they do not risk running into a road or falling into wells or pits.

Similarly Tagged Content

Share this resource

If you found this resource useful, please share it with others so they can benefit too.

Subscribe to Footsteps magazine

A free digital and print magazine for community development workers. Covering a diverse range of topics, it is published three times a year.

Sign up now - Subscribe to Footsteps magazine

Cookie preferences

Your privacy and peace of mind are important to us. We are committed to keeping your data safe. We only collect data from people for specific purposes and once that purpose has finished, we won’t hold on to the data.

For further information, including a full list of individual cookies, please see our privacy policy.

  • These cookies are necessary for the website to function and cannot be switched off in our systems.

  • These cookies allow us to measure and improve the performance of our site. All information these cookies collect is anonymous.

  • These allow for a more personalised experience. For example, they can remember the region you are in, as well as your accessibility settings.

  • These cookies help us to make our adverts personalised to you and allow us to measure the effectiveness of our campaigns.