Main content

Alert message

Spring/ Summer 2008 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

By Jill C. Brown, M.Ed., CTVI/COMS, Crowley ISD, Crowley, TX

Abstract: Young children learn though play. The author describes practical ways to turn everyday items into learning experiences by encouraging play.

Key Words: Effective Practices, early childhood, play, ECI

Many times friends and other teachers ask me what I do with children age birth to three? My answer is always, “I play.” I enjoy looking at their faces in response. I choose those words for two reasons. First, you cannot ever have a sit-down teaching lesson with such a young child. Second, I absolutely love what I do. As I try to teach or expose the kids to new skills, I know I learn as much they do.

It is through play that children learn about themselves: the space around them; their environment; the relationships of objects to themselves; and their ability to move out and explore. Notice the key word—themselves. Children cannot begin to learn about the world around them until they understand themselves first. With infants this is done incidentally through movement and vision. With diminished or no visual input, an infant needs support to learn about the world beyond what his or her body is touching. This means parents, teachers, developmental specialists, or anyone involved in that child’s daily life must teach the baby about space outside the immediate area. Look at the social interactions between a parent and child. Parents spend time playing with their babies, not teaching structured “sit down” lessons. It is in this back-and-forth play that children learn about themselves—how they move and impact the world. Through accidental motion, children learn how to move and coordinate their arms and legs to obtain toys. We must provide lots of opportunities for children to explore, and repeat those actions and experiences. Some important ideas to consider are:

  • Every child can learn
  • All behavior has meaning
  • All children want to move
  • Children learn from their own play activities

So we begin with play. I start by looking at what the child’s day looks like. When is the child most alert? I try to learn about the child’s likes and dislikes. Families are great resources to provide this information. Start with activities the child enjoys and motor abilities that the child currently has. From this starting point we encourage the child to have the confidence to move and progress from there.

Since movement is a natural and important part of a baby or toddler’s life, let’s begin by considering some early movements.

Head Control

One of the first motor movements a baby learns is head control. The child learns to keep his or her head upright and at the center of the body. The infant can move his or her head in a variety of ways, with each having a different effect. This skill is a foundation for future movement and sitting.

Activities to encourage head control

Hold the baby in many different positions during the day, not only over your shoulder. Also ihold the child n front of you, or put the child in a “football” hold (hold the child horizontally).

As you hold the child in your lap, slowly put him or her into a frontal or prone position, as well as a back or supine position. Also try a side-lying position.

For older infants, hold them in a supported sitting position, then slightly move them off center to encourage the righting reactions (movement of the head and arms to get back to center and protect self). This also works well using a ball.

While the child is lying on his or her back, gently pull the arms toward you, helping the child to a sitting position while giving the child time to adjust his or her head.

Toys to encourage head use

  • Rattles
  • As appropriate, lighted toys
  • Sound or musical toys

Tummy Time

Another important motor experience, tummy time helps the child begin to separate movement between different parts of the body. Tummy time is one of many beginning activities that help develop motor planning along with muscle development. It is also a pre-cursor to crawling.

Activities to encourage play when lying on one’s tummy

  • Lying on different surfaces.
  • Place favorite toys at various intervals for the child to discover. Use of sound may encourage the child to reach out.
  • Play mats.
  • Toys to encourage spending time on the tummy:
  • Objects which incorporate favorite color, texture, sounds
  • Musical toys that activate with a swipe (i.e. Happy Apple)
  • Shiny, reflective toys (mirror, Mylar paper)
  • Lights that push on and off


Rolling helps the child learn that we move from one position to another.

Activities to encourage rolling

  • Roll the child in a blanket or towel (like a hot dog) and help him or her roll out of it.
  • Help the child roll to a wall, then away, then to find wall again (to kick or pat).
  • Use various textures (e.g., a textured mat or blanket) to experience different feels.

Toys to encourage rolling

  • Lighted toys
  • Musical toys
  • Shiny or reflective toys


Crawling helps coordinate weight shift from one side of the body to the other. It teaches balance, fosters muscle development, and strengthens muscle tone.

Activities to encourage crawling

  • Encourage child to rock on all fours.
  • Crawl over a variety of obstacles and textures.
  • Crawl in and out of small spaces (e.g. under a table, tents, boxes, etc.)


Sitting is an advanced skill for the baby. It incorporates posture and balance skills. Muscle strength is needed to be upright. Motor coordination allows the child to use different parts of the body for different jobs, freeing his or her hands for play.

Activities to encourage sitting

  • Place baby in or on a variety of play spaces (i.e. boxes, mats, pillow, ball).
  • Encourage the sitting child to reach up above, to left or right side, and forward, then to regain upright posture.

Toys to encourage sitting

  • Toys that bang (e.g., wooden spoon and pot)
  • Toys that encourage use of both hands
  • Soft books (turning pages)
  • Toys that encourage understanding of cause and effect (e.g., baby pushes button and music plays)


Standing helps the child to learn balance and maintain posture, developing muscles and strength. When standing, the child explores shifting weight from one side to the other, a skill needed to facilitate walking.

Activities to encourage standing

  • Placing interesting toys or activities on low or child size tables.
  • Have child stand on your feet while you move (sway, side step, walk, dance, march, etc.).

Toys to encourage standing

  • Toys that have movement involved (busy boxes, pounding balls etc.)
  • Musical toys
  • Formboard puzzles


Activities to encourage walking

  • Walking in mom or dad’s shoes.
  • Games to encourage movement (e.g. walk like an animal, Simon Says, Ring Around the Rosey, etc).
  • Cruising along furniture, rails, or walls to get someone or something.
  • Dancing

Toys to encourage walking

  • Push toys; sit and ride toys
  • Wood beam (2X6 board)


Children who move and explore will have more opportunities to acquire more information. It is through all this moving in space that the child can begin his or her learning career. Play activities, whether planned or unplanned, create natural opportunities for incidental learning.

Toys are a natural extension of the child’s play. Toys help encourage imaginary play and role-play, while fostering social and conceptual development. While there are many, many commercially developed toys, it is fun every now and then to make your own toys. Home-made toys as well as the commercial toys should be used with adult supervision to avoid misuse or choking.

The following chart includes some of my ideas for toy play. You may already have many of the materials on hand. Most are easily found in a variety of stores.

Suggested Activities


Materials Needed: ponytail holders; bells / beads / paper etc.

Fill ponytail holders with textured filling. Sew tightly. Put on child’s wrist or ankles. This will help with body awareness. Supervision required.

CD Stack

Materials Needed: CDs, small dowel rod; string/yarn.

Stack CDs on rod or thread horizontally on string; hang CDs as a mobile, decorate with reflective stickers or contact paper.

String of Beads

Materials Needed: Christmas beads; girls’ play beads; Mardi Gras beads.

Visual tracking; reaching; use of both hands (on resonance board beads make lots of noise with very little movement).

Measuring spoons/cups/bowls

Materials Needed: metal/plastic measuring spoons/cups.

Comparing sizes; stacking/nesting; clacking together for noises (good for “Little Rooms”); scooping & pouring.

Pet Squeak Toys

Materials Needed: various soft squeak toys (pet section).

Visual tracking; auditory tracking; grasping.

Crinkle paper

Materials Needed: Mylar paper (found in gift wrap section).

Easy to hold; makes lots of noise with little movement; high visual interest.

Boxes, cartons, plastic bottles, plastic containers

Materials Needed: milk cartons; shoe, cereal, or oatmeal boxes; film canisters; plastic milk jugs; margarine tubs; etc.

Homemade rattles; scent jars; matching tops to jar/container; stacking/nesting; suspend for mobiles.

Tissue boxes; shoe boxes

Materials Needed: pop-up tissue boxes or shoe boxes with lids; different textured items to put in.

Feely boxes to stick hand in and find various items. Good for language and concept development.

Single color or simple patternedmaterial

Materials Needed: material from any craft store .

Cover bottles to enhance visual use; cover side of playpen or board to hang contrasting toys over. Make bean bags using favorite color/pattern and fill with interesting items (marbles, beans, rice, etc.).

Cookie sheet and magnets

Materials Needed: cookie sheet, baking pans; magnets (vary shapes and sizes).

Note: supervise this activity so child does not swallow magnet. Many cookie sheets or baking pans are magnetized. Stick magnet to sheet to hold items. Encourage visually or tactually finding item or magnet. Teach various concepts: up/down; left/right; corner, etc. by moving magnets.

Plastic soap holders; scrubbers; drain stoppers

Materials Needed: items come in many different shapes, textures, and sizes.

Encourages finger exploration; comparisons; good “chewy” for infants (please wash and supervise activity).

Ice cube trays / muffin tins / egg cartons

Materials Needed: various sizes of ice trays, muffin tins &/or egg cartons.

1-to-1 correspondence, matching; same/different number concepts.

Aluminum bowls

Materials Needed: all sizes-found in dollar stores.

Resonates sound, stirring; filling & dumping; sound echo.


Materials Needed: hair clips, clothespin; paper fasteners.

Development of sorting and pincer grasp.

Rattles (large)

Materials Needed: clear soda containers with screw top; glitter, bells, shiny beads; other items of interest.

Fill container partially with items to use (i.e. bells, glitter, beads, confetti) and glue top shut. Great for auditory and visual use.

Rattles (small)

Materials Needed: toothbrush holders; small travel bottles; various items to put in (beads, beans, rice, etc.).

Small hand-held rattles for child to play with. Fill container with items and glue shut. Decorate outside with stickers or reflective tape. Please supervise this activity.

Most of these ideas are not new but are natural. The trick is to use your imagination and let the child guide you as to what they want for that day. Now go out and play. Enjoy!

Websites with good information

Learning Through Play with Homemade Toys”, Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind

TotsnTech: different ideas and toys to make for play, communication and mobility/positioning”,

Inventory of Purposeful Movement” by Tanni Anthony

Motor Activities to Encourage pre-Braille skills”,

Learning to Move—Moving to Learn (A Guide to Gross Motor Activities for Children of Varying Abilities)”,

Creating Educational Toys and Activities for Children who are Blind or Visually Impaired”,

Almost 100 Motor Activities for Infants and Toddlers” by Olga Uriegas,

Orientation and Mobility Resource Site”,