Encouraging Productive Play

Play constitutes a major role in your child’s learning at this stage. We offer tips on how you can best encourage productive play, from limiting TV time to encouraging exploration.


Apart from stocking a creative and diverse toy box, you can help your preschooler get the most out of his playtime by following these rules:

  1. Limit TV time. Like adults, 3-year-olds can easily become addicted to the boob tube. But even educational shows don’t significantly improve a child’s brain or his body. If you must turn on the television, limit viewing time to one hour a day — and make sure the program is age-appropriate and worthwhile.
  2. Create the right mood. A relaxed environment — in which it’s okay to touch things, to make a mess, to get dirty, and to make noise — is essential to unleashing your child’s creativity. Pick a spot where kids can be kids, and try to keep the rules to a minimum. Also, make sure the play area affords some degree of privacy. Children feel freer to express themselves when they can move about and pretend out loud without fear of being watched or ridiculed.
  3. Play along. But don’t direct your child. Let her show you the way. When she’s pretending, for instance, don’t say things like “Girls can’t be daddies” or “Real brides don’t wear sneakers.” Her point is not to mimic reality but to act out a controlled fantasy. Criticism can easily diminish a child’s confidence and self-esteem — and ruin a good imaginative game. Instead, suggest interesting props now and then (“Would you like to color some flags for your castle?”), and join in if your child asks. Do not, however, play a scary character — even if your child suggests it. Fantasy and reality overlap in the 3-year-old’s mind, and kids this age can become extremely confused and frightened when parents play a monster or witch.
  4. Don’t judge. Saying “What’s that you’re building? A castle?” suggests to your child that his creation should look like something but that it falls short of your standards. To most 3-year-olds, the act of imagining or creating outweighs the end result. Instead, ask your child an open-ended question, like “Would you tell me about what you’re making?” Use the same encouraging approach when reading with your child. This will teach him to be observant (“What other kinds of animals do you see in this picture?”) and to think ahead (“What do you imagine the bunny will do next? And then what will he do?”).
  5. Teach social skills. As same-age playmates gain greater importance in your child’s life, teach the skills that are necessary for forming friendships: sharing, cooperating, and compromising.
  6. Supervise for safety. Although 3-year-olds can play more independently than toddlers, they still lack the self-control and common sense to play without adult supervision. You needn’t watch over your child like a drill sergeant, but you should stay within earshot and reach. You never know when your child is going to dare another to jump off the bed, try riding a tricycle down the stairs, or start pelting a friend with rocks. Be vigilant, and step in when danger appears imminent. Also, be sure to teach your child about the importance of avoiding strangers, whom you should define as anyone your child doesn’t know. Don’t mention the potential dangers (such as sex abuse or kidnapping) that strangers can present. Simply explain to your child, firmly and absolutely, that she must never go anywhere with anyone — not even to a friend’s house — without first asking you or another adult in charge.
  7. Encourage exploration. The more supervised exposure your child has to people, sights, and experiences outside the home, the richer his imagination and his play will be. While museum visits, theater and concert programs, farm tours, and zoos make wonderful day trips, even a visit to the grocery store can be an adventure. Wherever you take your child, talk to him about what you’re doing and enlist his help in pointing out new sights. Talk about your experience later, asking him to tell a story or draw a picture about the people he saw, and answer his questions. More than anything, this expands imagination.