When your kids are playing doctors with their teddy bears, they’re not just playing doctors with their teddy bears. They’re working on their social skills, such as sharing and taking turns. They’re building confidence, resilience and patience, enhancing their fine motor skills and discovering how to problem solve. Play is more than just play: studies show that learning through play helps foster speech development, cognitive processing, self-awareness and self-regulation. Early childhood teacher Dora Khanthan says play-based activities for preschoolers between the ages of three and five are especially important. 

“Play is the way children learn about the world they live in,” she says. “They are active and curious, and still developing their social and emotional competency. Preschoolers need ample opportunities to explore and investigate through open-ended play.”

But that doesn’t mean you need to overthink how you can encourage play, or create elaborate activities to keep them entertained. Sometimes, simple is best! We asked two early childhood education experts for their top ideas that are equal parts engaging, educational and easy to prepare at home.

How Much Time Should Kids Spend Playing?

Current government guidelines recommend preschoolers engage in active play (think running, walking, dancing or ball games) for between one and three hours every day. Unstructured or free play is also important as it provides opportunities for creativity and experimentation. But there’s no need to schedule activities for every minute of the day – kids reap the benefits from quick games and small pockets of fun. The key is balance, and providing a range of play throughout the day so they’re not doing the same thing for hours at a time.

Once children go to primary school, they’re ready for organised sports, like soccer, dancing or martial arts. They’re also adept at riding bikes and scooters. At this age, kids should be doing at least one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day according to exercise guidelines. 

1. Sensory Play for Preschoolers 

Child plays with wooden spoons and toy animal figures in differently sized containers half-filled with dried pulses. 

Fill a tub or tray with sand, rice or dried beans and let your preschooler go wild. Provide plenty of hands-on tools including scoops and containers for sifting, mixing and pouring for sensory enjoyment. Or, bury small toys or magnetic letters and play hide-and-seek for fun and creative literacy learning. 

This type of activity activates fine motor skills and allows your child to explore with their senses. “Sensory play is a lot of fun and offers so many benefits,” says Dora. “It enhances memory and observation skills, and supports language development, too.” This type of play-based learning can also have a calming effect on kids, soothing away anxiety or over-stimulation. This is particularly useful for children with special needs, according to this report from The Australian Institute Of Family Studies.

What to Try

SEE ALSO: The Importance of Sensory Play

2. Simple Board Games 

A woman and young boy play a board game on a bed with turquoise pillows and a background of blue-and-white striped wallpaper. 

This activity for preschoolers will transport parents and caregivers back to their childhood. Join in the fun with a quick game of Snakes and Ladders, Memory or Bingo, or card games such as Snap or Go Fish. “Board games are essential in my opinion,” says Abby Lambert, a diploma-qualified early childhood educator. “They’re amazing for preschool-aged children as they foster many skills they will use later in life: patience, turn-taking, following instructions, number recognition and counting, memory-recall skills and cooperation with others to achieve a common goal.”

Playing games provides plenty of teaching and learning opportunities for caregivers to model too, such as good sportsmanship, and how to manage those tricky emotions when you win or lose.

What to Try

3. Nature Walks With Preschool-Aged Kids

An infant girl wearing a blue dress and green hat crouches by a bush and touches its flowers with a green nature setting in the background.

Need some fresh air and a change of scenery? Taking a walk around your neighbourhood or a nearby park encourages learning through play, as kids can observe and collect natural items such as rocks, leaves and flowers. Discovering these can help develop imagination and a sense of wonder, while encouraging tactile play. You could even do a mini scavenger hunt by writing a list of things to look for on your walk, such as a ladybug, a gum tree or a dandelion, and tick them off as you go. Draw the plants and animals you see, or take leaves and flowers home to turn into a special nature picture. 

“Exploring nature is a great idea as preschoolers start to show more interest in the environment,” says Dora. “You could set up a simple science experiment in your own backyard or try gardening as a fun activity that you can do together.” Spending time outdoors is so beneficial for small children; it can improve their physical skills, like balance and coordination.

What to Try

4. Arts & Craft Ideas for Kids Aged 3 to 5

A young smiling boy holds a paintbrush dipped in a green paint container with a painting in green in front of him on a table.

Creative activities for preschoolers encourage self-expression and allow kids to use their imagination. Working with tools like scissors or crayons that require focus and precision can also help improve fine motor skills. Through fun art and craft projects, little ones master essential skills like how to concentrate, be patient and stay focused, all while making something of their very own. 

“Try painting, or sculpting with air-dry clay,” says Dora. “I also love making collages with my preschoolers. The best craft activities allow you to interact and be creative together.” Other ideas: making paper plate animals, painting rocks and stones, or using items from the recycling bin to build a cardboard box city.

SEE ALSO: 5 Fun DIY Paper Plate Crafts

What to Try

5. Sorting & Matching Activities for Preschoolers

An infant girl in a mustard-coloured dress plays with differently coloured flat pattern blocks on a white table.

Introduce early mathematical concepts to preschoolers with the help of a big bowl of buttons, counters or pom poms, then ask them to sort the items by colour, shape or size. You could also practise counting to 20 and making patterns – all fundamental skills that will set them up for learning maths in school. 

“Mathematical concepts are ingrained in our daily lives, so it’s a great idea to start them learning when they’re young,” says Abby. “Matching, sorting and pattern-making are all great. You can enhance maths skills by playing I-spy with shapes around the house, exploring opposites and pairs through flashcards and engaging with toys such as pattern blocks to explore symmetry and shapes.” 

You can also work on fine motor skills with threading or beading activities – try jewellery-making with cut-up straws and dry pasta threaded onto pieces of wool. 

SEE ALSO: 16 Craft Projects Perfect for Primary School Kids

What to Try

6. Learning Through Dress-Ups & Role Play

A young girl wearing dress-ups of a red-caped vest and butterfly mask runs in her house laughing with floor-to-ceiling windows streaming light in the background. 

Whether it’s setting up a pretend cafe or shop or indulging in a classic game of superheroes, many early childhood experts say role playing is crucial to a child’s development. “Role playing and dressing up is so important in early childhood as it reflects what children may see in the world around them,” says Abby. “By taking on different roles, children can practise negotiating, expressing themselves and using their imaginations. It also encourages confidence, empathy and an acceptance of diversity.” 

Start a dress-up box for your little one's creative collection by gathering old Halloween and Book Week costumes, or have a hunt for fun clothing and accessories at your local op-shop. When it comes to imaginative activities for preschoolers, the sky’s the limit. 

What to Try