Play with Multi Age Children

Toys, toys and more toys! As an early childhood special educator for Infants and Toddlers, I have the amazing opportunity to virtually visit many homes (and one day in person again).  Many of the families I work with have multiple children in the home and the question about setting up appropriate play for different ages is reoccurring!  With the recent holidays, families are also finding themselves with some new toys in the home.  Some of the best advice I can give is to set up play based on developmental stages and not necessarily the age of the child.  When I was in the classroom, I had to make sure I had learning opportunities for children in all stages of play and motor skills!

Toy organization & rotation

Even before the holidays, many of my parents wanted advice on what to do when their child seems to just want to dump toys.  They would spend their entire day following the messes around and becoming frustrated when toys were being thrown and not played with.  More often than not, there were simply just too many toys out. Before children develop play and leisure skills, dumping can be very enticing which can lead to throwing and other similar behaviors.  This certainly was not what you might have had in mind when you set all those amazing toys out!  You might have been picturing pretend play, laughing and smiling.  I know this was me as a Pre-K 3 teacher! I was so excited as I set up my room that first year.  Fast forward and it was nothing but chaos until I limited the number of toys, took notes on where my students were developmentally and practiced tons of modeling! Take note of a few toys your child really enjoys playing with and leave those out.  Introduce one or two new toys and do not be surprised if at first, they do not seem as interested in that toy.  We will get to modeling later! Here are some top tips for toy organization and rotating:

  • Significantly reduce the number of toys that are out. Take note of a few preferred toys and put the rest up and away! Even “old toys” can be seen as new again when they have been put away for a month!
  • Does your child become angry when you try and manipulate a toy with them? Play using proximity and narration type strategies (see my blog here on this specific topic)
  • You will know when it’s time to rotate toys once you start seeing toys just being dumped and not played with. Those extra messy consistent days are a sign to refresh! 
  • Reduce the number of pieces- For example, your child received a box of 150 blocks, use only 25 or even less! Have a dollhouse or kitchen set that came with lots of smaller pieces and furniture? Bag some up for later use and “new toys” during the next rotation.

Types of toys & multi age play

Do you have multiple ages of siblings in one household? Worried about your younger child putting the smaller pieces in their mouth from your older child’s play set? Maybe you even have an older child who is exploring more with their mouth at this point.  Check out some ways to use the same toys at different developmental stages!

  • If you have a child who has toys with smaller parts, these toys can be used during the younger (age or developmental stage) child’s nap time or when a parent can be fully present during play. Teach your child the importance of cleaning up his/her pieces so that baby or developmentally younger child can be safe too!
  • Blocks (wooden/Lego/foam/any type)- Have a small number out and set up a model tower or small house to make them more appealing. You can also add puzzle pieces or your child’s favorite figurines to encourage and model different ways to actually use the blocks.  Many times, we assume that just by setting out a new toy, the child should automatically know what to do with it!
  • Plastic or stuffed animals/figures- add to sensory bins, baskets, block areas. Are those plastic farm animals finding their way into your heating vents? Make a simple sensory bin out of wrapping paper scraps, beans, or rice and add the pieces to the bin.  Simply pulling them out and naming them can be more engaging and promote language. Want to step it up even more?  Have a book of the animals or picture cards and match the objects to the pictures.  Hello visual discrimination!
  • Puppets/stuffed animals- You can use these toys for tracking and eye gaze or as a way to encourage more tummy time for your babies! Put the pieces in front of, and to the left or right to promote gaze and reaching. For other stages of play, model how to feed the stuffed puppy or brush the puppets hair.
  • Dress up clothes- play peek a boo with the cape, brush it over your baby as you sing a silly song, and model pretend play by playing doctor with your other child!
  • Puzzles- I love puzzles and they are quite the popular gift for children! What can be frustrating as a parent or teacher is wondering why your child doesn’t seem so engaged in them.  For some children, completing or even trying a puzzle is quite a high demand.  Start with a simple 1-3 simple inset puzzle with big knobs.  Take out one piece, closest to the child and show how to slide it back into its place.  Bonus if you make a silly noise as it falls into place!  Extend learning for your other children by adding these pieces into the block area.  The horse puzzle piece now can go behind the fence that you built in the block area.  The horse goes “up up up” the fence line and can “go” and “stop”!

Playing is so important but it may not always seem as reinforcing to both adults and children as you see online and in tv shows.  And this is OK! Play takes a lot of practice and sometimes we have to play detective.  My last few tips include reducing distractions where possible.  Is the TV always on even when no one is watching it? Turn it off for a bit for some more engaged play and focus.  Do you have a room where most of the family hangs out? Bring a few toys into another room.  Remember that play also doesn’t have to last for hours and hours.  You might start with 30 seconds to 1 minute of focused joint attention and that’s amazing.  I come from the era of literally playing outside in the woods or sand all day so it’s a hard transition when all of a sudden what you had pictured isn’t happening YET.  Happy Playing!

Gina Russell, B.S , M.Ed
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