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How to engage children through play


11 October 2022

Play is your child’s learning superpower – child-led play facilitates opportunities for learning and development that help unlock skills, boost happiness and allow children to explore new ideas with other children and adults. 

How children play changes what they gain from their time playing. Too often, adults and practitioners are keen to show how a task or game is done, rather than allowing a child to explore the game and figure it out themselves. 

Resisting the urge to take over or hurry a child along in order to get to the ‘main goal’ will mean a child can discover ideas and thoughts and act upon them. With gentle guidance and open-ended questions, your child can get more out of their playtime.

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What are the different types of play?

Knowing play is important is one thing, but knowing the types of play and their benefits can help you accommodate for better play and learning. The types of play are:

Free Play

Free play is defined as a form of play that is child-initiated, unstructured and often a little messy! Free play allows children to explore and develop their imagination and experience the world around them naturally and in their own time. 

Free play activities can include:

  • Creative play using arts and craft supplies
  • Dress up and make-believe play
  • Outdoor play such as climbing trees

Guided Play

Guided play is structured around a learning outcome typically led by an adult. In guided play, children are gently steered and encouraged towards a specific outcome which is great for developing specific skills such as numeracy and literacy. Although guided play has more structure in comparison to free play, the child is still encouraged to explore the activity in their own way.

Guided play activities can include:

  • Counting games and activities
  • Writing and drawing in sand
  • Educational worksheets


Playing through games is as it sounds – using games as a structure to facilitate play. Playing games as a group activity allows children to build team playing and communication skills. These skills are nurtured through actions such as taking turns, practising patience, and learning how to enjoy taking part even without winning. 

Game play activities can include:

  • Card games such as Snap
  • Board games like Snakes and Ladders
  • Physical games and sports

Instructed Play

Instructed play requires children to follow instructions to complete a specific task or reach a certain goal and is often adult-led. Instructed play is great for developing a child’s understanding of instruction and encourages them to follow specific guidelines and rules closely.

Instructed play activities can include:

  • Baking activities
  • Building activities

What are the benefits of playing for a child?

Children discover a lot through play; they learn about themselves, others, and the world around them. The benefits children gain from play is endless and can help them develop many different skills.

Developing physical and mental skills, as well as social and communication skills during group activities – can support your child throughout their life and early years.

Physical development

Fine motor skills and gross motor skills are two of the key skills children develop during physical games and playtime. Not only does physical play help children physically explore their capabilities and enjoy hours of fun, but physical activity also helps sharpen their reflexes, develops hand-eye coordination, and builds strong muscles which benefit their overall health.

Imaginative and creative growth

Giving children the time, space, and freedom to explore their ‘make-believe’ worlds, can help them to discover new games and gives them the opportunity to develop their imagination and creativity. This allows a child to develop their ability to adapt ideas and solve problems in the real world.

Emotional and behavioural development

Children develop very important emotional and behavioural skills during group activities and solo playtime. Group activities teach children how to take turns, and develop communication skills that help them explain game rules and develop listening skills. Solo play, on the other hand, can help build a child’s problem solving skills and resilience to problems, building their self esteem and confidence. 

Teaching children to draw

Engaging games and activities for children

In a world where video games and screens seem to be everywhere, it can be difficult to come up with fun, exciting new games and activities that keep your child’s interest and aid in their development. The best way to engage a child in play is to expand on their interests. For example, if your child loves sensory play, consider hiding objects for them in rice or sand. 

To help you come up with new activities to do at home, we’ve created a Learning Through Play guide. This guide has games and activities for children from newborn to preschool and each activity focuses on developing their skills and understanding of the world.

Engaging play for 0-11 months

Children during the first year of their life love to explore sensory experiences and engage in sensory play. Using different lights, colours, textures, and sounds can help develop a huge range of important skills and reach milestones. 

As they get older and more mobile, crawlers, walkers and doorway bouncers are great aids to help strengthen their muscles and improve motor skills and coordination. 

Creating gloop (cornflower and water), and using sand or dried lentils and beans are all interesting textures for your young child to explore. You can add to this activity by adding age-appropriate toys, foam shapes and other items into the texture mix. 

Engaging play for 12-23 months

During the woddler stage of 12-23 months, children become more aware of their preferences and have a better understanding of the world around them, but will still greatly benefit and enjoy playing with different textures and sensory toys.

Small world toys such as cars, animals and dolls help children explore their understanding of the world and allow them to be creative. In nursery, we enjoy creating scenery for the children to play with or offering maps and roads for cars.

As woddlers gather a better understanding of themselves, they’ll enjoy playing games such as Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes and naming body parts.

Engaging play for 2-3 years

Children during this age and stage of their development enjoy a wide variety of games and activities including stories, dress up and make-believe, as well as sensory activities as mentioned above. 

Activities such as treasure hunts are great for engaging their imaginations, and physical development and they hold a child’s interest for a long period of time. Games such as jigsaw puzzles are entertaining and help develop problem-solving skills, and counting activities help build the beginnings of their numeracy skills and understanding.

Engaging play for 4-5 years

At this age, children have a wild imagination and love playing dress up, exploring different personas and characters through play and can build on their communication skills, too. Expand on this creativity and imagination phase by allowing children to use natural resources to create “potions” and mixtures in bowls in the garden.

During the preschool age, children are growing and developing at such a rapid pace that they often engage in a wide range of games and activities and love to play in groups and follow instructions.

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Playing and developing at nursery

No matter the age of your child, we strive to provide an engaging and stimulating environment, packed full of activities and games that help develop and nurture a range of developmental milestones and skills outlined by the EYFS.

Find your nearest nursery and contact us to enrol your child today. 


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