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How To Play With A Preschooler
Turn off the TV!
Maybe you offered to babysit your sister's little one while she goes to get her hair cut. Or maybe you have a little one of your own who's just moving out of the baby/toddler stage and can now be officially classified as a "preschooler." What makes a preschooler a preschooler, you ask? Well, it has something to do with age -- a three- or four-year-old child usually is considered a preschooler. But along with the age come a host of new skills and activities that babies just don't do...hence, your puzzlement over how to play with the little person standing in your kitchen, gazing up at you with big, expectant eyes.
If you have a few hours to spend with a preschool-age child, you're in for a lot of fun, and you should expect to expend a lot of energy keeping up with your playmate. Preschoolers have a lot of energy and are curious about everything -- after all, it's their job to learn all about this big wide world.
So, let's get started!
First of all: turn off the TV.
That's right, just turn it off. Your little friend doesn't need to watch a screen to learn about the world -- all he needs to know at this moment is right there in front of him, where he can reach out and grab it. A child of this young age needs to feel things with her own hands, as well as to smell, taste, and hear. She needs to bang on pots and pans to see what kind of noise that makes, and she needs to stack blocks up as high as she can before knocking them all down. A preschooler needs to be able to reach out and grab the world in order to learn about it. So, even though a bit of TV won't hurt now and then, it's best to turn it off during playtime.
If the child you're playing with isn't yours, chances are you don't have any toys in your house. Don't worry about it! Look around for safe, unbreakable objects that will either hold other objects or make cool noises when banged together. The kitchen is often the best place to look -- plastic bowls, rubber spatulas, sets of measuring spoons, dishtowels, even a sink filled with water and a few plastic cups will keep a child busy. Help the child how he can gather together a bunch of objects in his plastic bowl, sorting things by color or size, and then WHOOPS! dump them out on the floor. Let her open your pots-and-pans cupboard, take everything out, climb inside and shut the door behind her...and then POP! out and surprise you. Even a giant cardboard box can provide many hours of fun for a young child -- he can color on the outside of the carton, then hide inside and color for awhile in there.
Playing to Learn
If you do have some toys, think about what a child of this age can learn from them. Shapes, sizes, colors, numbers -- it's all fair game for a preschooler. Blocks are great for building towers and walls, but you can also use them to teach a child how to count -- "We have five blue blocks [count them, one by one] and ten red blocks." Sorting and counting are great learning activities for young children, and they can catch on very quickly. They won't even know that they're learning, because at this age, learning is fun.
Playing with dolls or little plastic people like Legos or Playmobil can be a lot of fun for young children. They have a chance to use their language skills, which are still developing, and they exercise their imaginations as they make up stories. Let the child take the lead if you're playing with dolls or figures -- you can ask leading questions like, "And then what happened?", but then listen and play along.
Preschoolers also love to play dress-up and pretend they're someone else, so have on hand some old hats (cowboy hats and police hats are popular, if you can find them) and brightly colored scarves, and maybe some old Halloween costumes. Your little friend might want to pretend she's a lion or a dog one minute, and the next minute she might want to be a dancer. Put on some music -- something bright and rhythmic -- and invite the child to dance around the room with you. She'll get some exercise while developing her creativity.
Crayons, paints, markers, colored pencils -- preschoolers love them all! Finally they are developing the kind of small-motor coordination that allows them to hold a writing implement and control what it does, so artwork is popular with this age group. A coloring book is fine, but even better, hand the child a blank sheet of paper and invite him to draw something. See what happens! He may also be interested in using some blunt-tip scissors, made especially for preschoolers, and some glue stick to make a two- or three-dimensional object.
The Natural World
If you have easy access to the outdoors, take your preschooler outside for a walk and some playtime. Dress both of you appropriately for the weather, so that you can spend as much time outside as your little one wants. Kids need to be connected to nature. It comes naturally (pun intended!) to them -- they want to be close to the natural world. Take a walk and look at the evidence of the changing seasons: the colored leaves, buds on the trees, flowers popping up out of the ground. Point it all out to the child, and talk about it. The child is a sponge, soaking it all up. Stop and watch an anthill, down on your hands and knees. Watch a squirrel bury a nut. Watch a bird pull a worm out of the ground. You'll see things you've seen a million times, but you will really see them this time. When you see the world through the eyes of a child, everything becomes new.
And Don't Forget To Read!
At some point during your play session, you and your young friend may decide it's time to take a break from all that activity. Time to read a book! Books for this age group are plentiful and wonderful -- picture books with fantastic, colorful, often humorous illustrations provide lots of opportunities for conversation -- more learning there! -- and connection. A small child often loves to snuggle up on the couch beside a favorite adult for storytime. Maybe a trip to the public library to find a stack of books to take home would be fun for you, too.
Most Of All, Have Fun!
Being with a preschooler can be exhausting if you're not used to it, but in a good way -- if you really engage with the child, you will truly begin to experience the world from his or her point of view. Remember that a young child learns from everything he or she experiences, so even if you think your play session might be a little dull, your little friend has probably learned something and most likely has had fun doing it. Just relax and enjoy your time together!