Play in the Early Years

Play is important for the mental, physical and psycho-social development of children. Through play, the child has the chance to explore the world, interact with others, connect and bond with parents, express and control emotions, develop symbolic and problem-solving abilities, and practice emerging skills. Research shows the links between play and foundational capacities, such as memory, self-regulation, oral language abilities, social skills and success in school (NAEYC, n.d.).



Play and child development

0-12 months old

Children of this age are at the sensory-motor stage (Piaget, 1964). This means that they learn using their senses.

Suggested toys:

  • Toys with sounds and colors
  • Soft toys, such as colorful staffed animals
  • Blocks with different shapes and sizes
  • Pyramid with plastic or wooden rings
  • Soft large cubes
  • Children’s mirror
  • Cloth books
  • Teething toys
  • Squeeze/squeak toys


12-24 months old

At this stage, the child starts to explore the toys and stops putting everything in his mouth. He enjoys kinetic games; he likes to be around other children but without sharing his toys.  He, also, starts to use everyday objects as toys.

Suggested toys:

  • Simple Constructional Toys
  • Bricks
  • Pop-Up Toys
  • Blocks
  • Colourful Markers
  • Cooking Sets
  • Rag Dolls
  • Books With Big Joyful Pictures
  • Wooden Puzzles And Jigsaws
  • Block Puzzles
  • Tool Kits And Workbenches
  • Chasing
  • Books


2-3 years old

Children at this age, enjoy group games since they are now able to wait for their turn. They also play with every-day objects and incorporate them in their make-believe and role-playing game.

Suggested toys:

  • Constructional toys with large blocks and bricks
  • Cars
  • Dolls and Dollhouses
  • Puzzles
  • Jigsaws
  • Musical instruments
  • Markers, crayons, finger-painting
  • Ball
  • Cooking sets
  • Books


3-5 years old

By now, children like to play with their peers in groups of 4-5 and they are able to share their toys. In their make-believe games, they pretend to be someone they know or to do something that they have observed.

Suggested toys:

  • Constructional toys
  • Handicraft
  • Complex Puzzles
  • Musical instruments
  • Markers, crayons
  • Games that require movement
  • Play-doh
  • Memory cards
  • Books


5-6 years old

The child is now able to follow the rules of the games.

Suggested toys:

  • Boarded games
  • Handicraft
  • Puppet theatre
  • Memory cards
  • Books

The following poster links theorists and theories to the five types of play. It also gives you an example of how you could link it to a learning experience.



What does each toy promotes:

Crayons, markers and finger painting: stimulate senses, strengthen focus, increase attention

Ball: develops motor skills, increases attention and eye-contact, it is fun!

Puzzles and Blocks: develop motors skills, teach structural concepts, teach shapes, colours and classification, help eye-hand coordination, increase attention and focus

Handicraft and Play-doh: develop vocabulary, excite imagination, develop motor skills, use of objects, teach colours and shapes

Dolls: helps expressing  and understanding the feelings, practice empathy, discussion skills, promote symbolic play

Memory cards: develop vocabulary, practice visual memory, promote understanding sequence, critical thinking

Chasing: develop motor skills, burn energy, eye-contact

Books: develop vocabulary, stimulate imagination, accelerate emotional development and foster natural curiosity, improve attention span, increase knowledge



  • Choose toys according to the interests of your child!
  • Safe toys for young children are well-made (with no sharp parts or splinters and do not pinch); painted with nontoxic, lead-free paint; shatter-proof; and easily cleaned.



National Association for the Education of Young Children, n.d.: 

Piaget, J. (1964). Part I: Cognitive development in children: Piaget development and learning. Journal of research in science teaching, 2(3), 176-186


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