15 Fun-Filled Play Ideas For Your Childcare Setting

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Play is fundamental in a child’s life and an important way for them to learn about the world around them.

When you’re working in a childcare setting, giving children the option to play with lots of different materials ensures the day never gets boring, and the little ones are given every opportunity to learn.

Let’s find out more about play, and the ideas you can use in your setting to enhance their learning day-in, day-out.

What are the different types of play in childcare?

The Six Stages of Play set out by Mildred Parten outline the different types of play children will go through before the age of five.

They are:

  • Unoccupied play (0-3 months) – a child moves around, observing the world around them
  • Solitary play (3 months – 2.5 years) – a child plays alone, content with their own company
  • Onlooker play (2.5 years – 3.5 years) – a child pays attention to those around them but does not interact
  • Parallel play (2+ years) – a child plays near other children but not necessarily with them
  • Associative play (3-4 years) – a child starts to interact with other children while playing
  • Cooperative play (4+ years) – children fully interact with others while playing, and set common goals to work towards

You’re likely to see these behaviours in a childcare setting as the children grow and learn.

They can also partake in different types of play such as fantasy, social, physical, and symbolic.

Why is play at the early years stages so essential?

Play is vital for children’s development and growth, teaching them new abilities such as fine motor skills, gross motor skills, and literacy skills.

“Children should be able to play freely and lead their own play experience to get the most out of it,” says Rachel Cox, Head of Childcare at TSW Training. “They should also have the opportunity to engage in lots of different types of play so they can enhance different skills.”

15 fun play ideas for childcare settings

We’ve rounded up our favourite play ideas for childcare settings so you can help children to learn through play.

#1. Role-play with friends

Putting yourself in another person’s shoes is a key skill that children can start to adopt from a young age. Role-playing with their peers can help them to hone their communication skills too.

Have different costumes on hand such as a doctor’s uniform, or a policeman’s helmet, as well as settings to play in, like a kitchen or a shop. Children can get involved in acting out different scenarios, helping them to understand more about the adult world.

#2. Create beautiful music

Musical instruments can be a source of intrigue for children, so showing them how to make their own music can really captivate them.

Whether you form your own mini-orchestra or put on some tunes for the children to dance to, they’ll be able to get involved in learning new skills either way.

#3. Splash around with water play

Getting used to different elements can help children develop physical skills as well as coordination. Splashing around at the water station, they can use buckets, water wheels, and other toys to understand how water works, and how heavy it can become in larger volumes.

Allowing toys to float or loading them up to sink can also help them to comprehend that their actions have consequences.

#4. Build sculptures with sand play

Sand is a great material for children to play with because it’s so transient; one minute, you can create a pretty pattern, and the next you can build a castle.

Children playing with sand can learn construction skills, and see what wonderful creations they can bring to life.

#5. Act out scenarios with dolls

Playing with dolls is a great way for children to act out scenarios and explore the world around them through the characters they create.

Using dolls, children can process emotions they may be experiencing, and increase their social skills with other children too.

#6. Tell a story with puppets

Puppets can represent different characters, emotions, or people, making them an interesting way for children to learn about the world.

The children could even create the puppets themselves to enact a story with. This type of imaginative play can encourage children to develop language skills and express themselves in a way they may feel more comfortable with.

#7. Create a masterpiece

Giving your budding artists everything they need to create a masterpiece can be so rewarding.

Painting their family, pets, or favourite superhero, can help them learn about colours, and textures, plus it gives them the opportunity to get involved in plenty of messy play. Getting stuck into finger painting or using paintbrushes and sponges to achieve the final piece can help children understand how to handle different materials.

#8. Build a den

Who doesn’t love building a den? If you have room in the setting for the children to get involved, grab some blankets and cushions to create a secret den for them to hide in.

Putting the den together will help them to learn the value of teamwork and enhance their construction abilities too. The den could be a place for storytime or you could even act stories out such as The Three Little Pigs, with a childcare worker playing the wolf who comes to ‘blow the house down’.

#9. Sing together

Children love to sing from a young age – hence the importance of nursery rhymes and lullabies in their lives.

A singing session can help them to develop their language skills, and reap the physical benefits of singing, such as their breathing regulation. Songs that include numbers can help to build key numeracy skills, as well as their ability to memorise words and follow patterns in the music.

#10. Make cardboard boxes into race cars

Symbolic play is something a lot of children naturally fall into, while us adults look on in amusement. A banana becomes a phone, or a tree becomes the mast of a pirate ship. A cardboard box can be practically anything!

Setting up cardboard boxes to be transformed into race cars can be a real treat for youngsters. They can paint it to perfection, use a plastic plate as a steering wheel, and away they go. You could even set up teams to work on race cars together, helping children to collaborate on the project together.

#11. Explore nature with outdoor play

Outdoor play is important for children, as it allows them to get in touch with the natural world. There are also plenty of opportunities for children to engage in physical play outside, as opposed to staying indoors.

With 30% of pre-schooler parents finding it difficult to control their child’s screen time, childcare settings can play a critical role in helping little ones to spend more time in the great outdoors.

#12. Develop different skills with sensory play

Using playdough or slime to create shapes can encourage children’s motor skills while giving them an enjoyable experience with their friends. The tactile nature of playing with these materials engages the senses, and helps children get to grips (literally!) with different textures.

Sensory play helps children to build their cognitive skills too, bringing problem-solving to the fore.

#13. Get stuck into arts and crafts

Taking a creation home to show your parents or caregiver is such a rewarding time for a child. Whether it takes pride of place on the fridge or is stored away in a memory box, getting stuck into arts and crafts can keep children learning new skills.

Crafting something new can be a great way for children to express themselves too, opening up conversations between parents and little ones.

#14. Relax with storytime

After all that playing, relaxing with a story can be a lovely way for children to learn key listening skills that will help them as they head to school.

Stories can teach moral lessons, and reinforce empathy among youngsters, especially when they listen to a variety of voices and authors.

#15. Design delicious treats with cake decorating

If little ones are too small to get involved in baking themselves, cake decorating can give them the opportunity to be part of the process anyway.

Line up some fairy cakes, icing, and plenty of edible treats and let the children create masterpieces to rival the likes of Mary Berry.

Enjoying their delicious treat afterwards is the ultimate reward for all their hard work.

Train your childcare team with TSW Training

If you’re looking to upskill your team and help children learn through play, we have apprenticeship programmes for childcare workers at different levels to accommodate everyone.

Take a look at the programmes we offer and chat with a friendly member of our team about how we can help you.


Picture of Richard Hywood
Richard Hywood
Richard is TSW Training Apprenticeships’ Employer and Community Engagement Manager. His articles will help your business prepare for and manage apprentices.
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