wooden rainbow childs toy

Play Styles: Play Ideas Under Fives Will Love

Our early childhood educators have some helpful advice for setting up play activities that are the perfect match for the way your pre-school aged child likes to play.

Your Child’s Play Style can provide a great deal of insight into what makes them tick. This can also be called schemas and play urges. Understanding what makes them tick in a play sense can deepen their engagement with play, it can also help you provide play opportunities that they will really connect with.

Photo @darby via Twenty20

What is a Schema or Play Urge?

Schemas or Play Urges can be described as repetitive actions of children that allow them to explore and engage with their environment. They are defined by intense concentration, complete absorption, deep gratification and resilience during the activity. Play urges show us that this kind of repetitive play is meaningful. They also provide us with a base for engaging with children to help them maximize their learning.

“Children experiencing an environment where they develop working theories for making sense of the natural, social, physical and material worlds.” Exploration – Te Whāriki, New Zealand ECE Curriculum 2017.

You can continue to support this type of learning at home.

Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

Loose parts are a great way to support play urges and they can be made up of things you have at home already!

Loose parts are everyday objects that can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, and taken apart and put back together in different ways. They are open ended materials with no specific set of instructions that can be used alone or with other loose parts.

At Home Loose Parts List

Below we have outlined some common play urges and some activities you can do at home to support this type of exploration for your child.

Remember this is play based learning, there is no right or wrong. Let your child guide you. Observe their natural play state and choose activities that will foster their natural curiosity.

Transporting – Moving things from one place to another

Suggested Activities:

Provide a variety of carry bags (backpacks, shopping bags, old handbags) for your child to use to transport things. Collect loose parts for them to transport.

Boil eggs and play egg and spoon games. Use masking tape to create a trail for your child to follow while balancing an egg on their spoon (you can use a ball or piece of fruit). Offer your child a variety of spoons and measuring cups to experiment with.

Trajectory- climbing up and jumping off, throwing and dropping

Suggested Activities:

Play “The floor is lava” using your couches and cushions as safe spots for your child to jump to and from. You can also add in items for them to collect around the room without touching the floor of lava.

Create parachutes and drop them from a variety of heights. Here is a great YouTube clip showing how to make one

Orientation – urge to hang upside down, get on top or under of things, see things from different angles

Suggested Activities:

Using a flat sheet, turn your dining room table into a fort for your child to burrow into. You can also give them a torch, pillows and blankets, you could even eat lunch under the table. Mirrors and magnifying glasses would be a great addition too.

You can tape a bit of paper onto the underside of your coffee table, or a table big enough for your child to lie or sit under, and let them draw on the paper.

Lie on your back with your child, look at clouds through tree branches. On your tummies look through the grass, roots or trees.

Positioning/patterning – put things in alignment, tidying up

Photo by Eric Krull on Unsplash

Suggested Activities:

Using your child’s toy collection create piles according to colour, then line them up biggest to smallest. Organise them into categories by type (cars, soft toys, dolls) and then order them by size within these categories.

Provide a large selection of loose parts for your child to sort and position. Put Bullseye’s with point values on them for your child to aim for with their lined up loose parts.

Connecting – urge to connect, join (includes disconnecting too!)

child stacking rainbow colourful wooden blocks
Photo by La-Rel Easter on Unsplash

Suggested Activities:

Any old electronics you have can be taken apart using tools

Using loose parts, stack a tower as high as you can, have discussions with your child around what types of materials would be best to use to make the highest tower

Enclosing/enveloping – urge to wrap themselves or things in fabric, paper, sticky tape

Suggested Activities:

Play reverse Pass the Parcel. Choose a toy and pass it between you, each turn you have wrap the toys in a new layer. Use materials like cloth, tinfoil, shopping bags, towels, sheets, scarfs, newspaper.

Create box huts and little spaces for your child to hide themselves in, play hide and seek.

Provide different materials for your child to wrap themselves in, try to provide materials in a variety of textures

Rotation – urge to spin or go in a circular motion

@hannitary via Twenty20

Suggested Activities:

Use planks of wood to create ramps to race cars down. Try using cars with different sized wheels. You can wet the wheels with water and observe the marks being made on the ramp

Using a large open area place a toy towards the outside edge. In the middle spin your child around in fast circles 10 times, once you stop spinning they have to collect the toy and make it back to the middle.

Roll down hills or around the back yard, have races with your child, practice forward rolls and backward rolls on a mattress. Tell them to tuck their chin to their chest and look at their belly button when they roll.

Transformation – urge mix water with sand, juice with food

Suggested Activities:

Messy play like gloop, baking soda volcanoes, finger paint are great ways to transform different substances. You could always try making some bath bombs for a relaxing wind down to the end of the day for your tamariki.

Get baking! Transform individual ingredients into a delicious afternoon tea. Here are some kid friendly recipe ideas.


Peanutbutter & Jam Thumbprint Cookies


Hidden Veggie Pizza Bread


Healthy Apple Pie Oat Bars

Activity set created in collaboration with Sarah Darby, NZ registered Early Childhood Teacher.

At home Loose Parts List

Make sure these items are age appropriate for your child and do not pose a choking hazards. ALWAYS supervise young child with these items.

From the kitchen:

  • bottle caps
  • straws
  • cardboard tubes
  • bowls, containers, and baking tins
  • spoons, forks, potato mashers, hand mixers, scoops
  • empty containers and bottles
  • baby food jars
  • marker caps
  • packaging products like bubble wrap, wrapping paper scraps, cardboard and Styrofoam inserts
  • cardboard boxes and scraps in a variety of sizes
  • recycled spools and wheels from thread and ribbon
  • plastic cups and lids
  • corks
  • cans (make sure there are no sharp edges)
  • egg cartons
  • rubber bands
  • paper scraps

From the odds and ends container:

  • fabric remnants
  • silk scarves
  • ribbons
  • glass gems and mosaic tiles
  • doilies and handkerchiefs
  • yarn, embroidery thread,twine, rope
  • curtain rings
  • funnels
  • old picture frames(glass/backs removed)
  • hair elastics and scrunchies
  • paper clips
  • bangles, costume jewellery
  • large beads, pompoms, pipe cleaners and craft gems
  • balls
  • marbles
  • napkin rings
  • golf tees
  • puzzle and game pieces
  • From the shed:•wood scraps•nuts and bolts

Form the shed:

  • wire (make sure there are no sharp ends)
  • ceramic tiles
  • washers
  • dowels
  • PVC pipes
  • pegs
  • paint sample cards

From the backyard:

  • rocks in a variety of sizes and textures
  • leaves
  • fresh and dried flowers
  • pine cones
  • seeds, dried beans
  • pods, acorns, chestnuts
  • dirt
  • sand
  • smooth sea glass
  • sticks, logs, tree cookies
  • feathers
  • shells