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Have you noticed that your little one likes to play with certain things, but isn’t really interested in others? And when they do play, the same actions keep getting repeated – lining up blocks or cars, collecting “treasures” in a bag and toting them everywhere, or wanting to play with puzzles over and over? This repetition or pattern in their play is how they are making sense of the world around them through clever play. Here are some of the patterns you may observe your child exploring through their play. Remember, these are only ideas – give them a try and see what happens, but don’t be discouraged if your child wants to try something different!

Making a mess – for a reason

It’s eye-opening to realise that your child is not just creating a mess by chucking toys everywhere, but that they’re actually exploring a particular play pattern – and some amazing learning and development is taking place through these patterns of play. While it’s tempting to want to direct your child to play with toys in a particular way (and indeed, some teaching styles emphasize this), or to want to sign your little potential prodigy up for every focused activity under the sun (music, dance, sports, coding, art, underwater basket weaving), the truth is that kids need free, unstructured play time like plants need water.

Free play that is child-led (rather than adult-directed or structured) is incredibly important for healthy brain development. Free play allows children to develop their imaginations and creativity, encourages them to practise decision-making skills, helps them to build confidence, lets them explore and interact with the world around them, teaches them conflict-resolution, problem-solving, and social skills, and gives them a physical outlet for all of that boundless energy. All of this contributes to healthy brains and bodies – and it’s important that parents facilitate plenty of time for children to play, without trying to take over or tell them what to do.

How to recognise play patterns

When your child is having free play time, sit back and observe what they’re doing. How are they interacting with their toys? Are they getting frustrated at not being able to figure something out? Are they repeating an action that makes them laugh, such as winding a jack-in-the-box to see the figure pop out? Children can explore several play patterns at once, and when you as their parent learn to recognise the play pattern they’re focused on right now, there are things you can do to help support their learning. Here are some common examples of play patterns and ways you can enhance your child’s play.

1. Connecting/disconnecting

Does your child love to build things, only to tear them apart and rebuild? They’re exploring the connecting/disconnecting play pattern, learning how things go together and how they come apart. Try some other activities, like cutting up paper with child-friendly scissors, then gluing the paper scraps to a piece of paper.

2. Enclosing/enveloping

Does your child like to “fence in” toy animals with blocks? They’re exploring the enclosing/enveloping play pattern, learning about boundaries. Try giving them materials (and possibly help if they ask – but don’t do it for them!) to build a blanket fort, so they can explore this concept on a larger scale.

3. Ordering

Does your child line up toys or stack books? They’re exploring the ordering play pattern, learning about organisation and sorting. Try singing songs with ordering language in them, like “Five Little Monkeys”.

4. Rotation

Does your child twirl and spin? They’re exploring the rotation play pattern, learning about circular movement. Try giving them access to items that turn or twist, like a lock and key.

5. Trajectory

Does your child feel the urge to climb and jump off of things? They’re exploring the somewhat challenging play pattern of trajectory, learning about velocity, gravity, and movement. Try letting them flick water at the fence using various objects like a paint brush or the garden hose slowly turned up, so they can see how water moves through space.

6. Transforming

Has your child been fascinated watching a caterpillar turn into a chrysalis and then a butterfly? They’re exploring the transforming play pattern, learning how things grow and change. Try making coloured ice cubes and then letting them melt in the bath or on the footpath to see what happens.

7. Transporting

Does your child love to carry a little handbag of treasures wherever they go? They’re exploring the play pattern of transporting, learning how things move from one place to another. Try providing them with different-sized modes of transportation, such as a doll pram, wagon, or bucket.

These are only some examples of the types of play your child might engage in for each play pattern. If you want to find out more about what play patterns your child is currently working on, check out – there’s a cool interactive quiz to help you think about the ways you’ve observed your child playing, and suggestions for a number of activities you can do to enhance their learning through play patterns.

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