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Supporting learning

There are lots of fun things you can do to help your child improve their problem solving skills, their ability to use their hands (fine motor skills) and their bodies in a co-ordinated way, develop their imaginations and get better at listening, looking and thinking.

Let’s get problem solving

Between 3 and 4 years old, your child will be asking lots of questions as they try to make sense of the world around them, and by the time they start school, they’ll be better at negotiating and solving problems that crop up in their play. You can:

  • Use short, easy to understand sentences when answering questions, breaking information into chunks so they can understand one bit at a time. If possible, show them what you’re talking about. If you can’t show them the real thing, look at pictures in books or online
  • Visit different places near to where you live, like the supermarket, the park, and the library
  • Set up treasure hunts where they have to listen to instructions to find the next clue
  • Involve your child in day to day jobs like making the lunch, sweeping up or planting seeds. Talk to them about what’s involved and ask questions, for example, ‘What shall I use to cut up the apple?’ Everyday situations are a good opportunity to explore mathematical ideas and language like halves and quarters, sharing equally, more than, less than
  • Have fun building things with toy bricks and cardboard boxes, and talk about how to make it taller, wider or stronger. Spot shapes around and about, and explore fitting shapes and objects into different sized boxes and containers
  • Make use of opportunities to practise counting: count teddies on the bed, fingers and toes, stairs, number of grapes left on a plate etc. With older children, see if they can guess how many things there are altogether, and then count to see how close they were
  • Look out for numbers and letters around and about, especially those that are important for them, such as their age, or the letter at the start of their name. They could have a go at making them from playdough. Take a look at this playdough recipe.

Child cooking with mother

Clever hands

At age three to four years, children can use child-friendly scissors to snip and hold a pencil to copy shapes. They’re also able to wash and dry their own hands and start being able to dress themselves. By the time they start school, they’ll be starting to write letters that you can recognise.

Child drawing

You can:

  • Help your child practice with using child-friendly scissors to cut ‘softer’ things like cooked spaghetti and playdough, building up to using scissors alongside tape, hole punches, paper and string to make or fix things, or join them together
  • Cutting out playdough or pastry helps children get better at using a knife and fork. Make sure at mealtimes, there are some softer things for children to practice cutting up for themselves
  • Make pictures with a range of different materials from crayons and paint to wool, leaves and tissue paper.
  • Provide lots of opportunities to practice fiddly tasks that need good hand/eye co-ordination: unscrewing caps, threading beads onto strings or doing up buttons and zips
  • Enjoy messy play – sand, water, paint, mud and cornflour. Older children can have a go at making letter or number shapes with their fingers. Remember, there are often free messy play sessions at your local Children’s Centre if you don’t want to do this at home

Brilliant bodies

Your pre-schooler will be getting better all the time at moving in different ways such as hopping, jumping and skipping, and will be able to navigate their way around obstacles and slow down and change direction without bumping into things. They’ll be learning to throw, catch and kick and will develop the independence to go to the toilet on their own and wash their hands. Support them by:

  • Playing with dolls in the bath helps children remember which body parts they need to wash. Practising on a doll or other toy is also useful when they’re learning to brush their teeth.
  • Providing lots of opportunities to play outdoors in the fresh air. Go to the playground where they can have fun swinging, climbing, jumping, spinning and sliding, or set up an obstacle course of your own at home with chairs to run around, blankets to crawl under or cardboard boxes to jump over
  • Helping them ride scooters, balance bikes and pedal toys, which are great for developing balance. Skipping ropes and hula hoops are also great tools for developing co-ordination
  • Having fun throwing and catching balls of different sizes, or throwing them into a box or bucket

Child riding bike

Just imagine…

At this age, children use lots of imagination in their play and enjoy acting out everyday experiences like going to the shops. Often they’ll enjoy dressing up and role-playing people like firefighters, doctors, nurses and superheroes, or pretending to be characters from books or TV. Encourage their imagination by:

  • Providing props and costumes to dress up and play with. Talk about what they’re playing and join in the pretending too
  • Suggesting they use their favourite books as a starting point for making up their own stories
  • Talk about special events they have experienced, like a first swimming lesson or visiting a new baby cousin
  • Allow them to join in with tasks you’re doing or to help them pretend to do something similar – give them plastic bowls and spoons when you’re cooking, or a sponge to help wash the car

Looking, listening and thinking

Don’t be afraid to share all different kinds of texts together, from story books and comics to rhymes, fact books and magazines. Many children will have their favourites and ask to hear them over and over again. This is great because it helps them learn lots of new words and develop language skills.

Child reading with mother

  • When you’re reading together, talk about the pictures, what they can see and what is happening. Explore how the characters are feeling at different points. During stories they know well, pause at different points and see if your child can tell you what happens next
  • Encourage them to listen out for rhymes and see if they can think of other words that rhyme as well. Make up your own versions of well-known rhymes: ‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a …’ Talk about the sounds in words, and practice spotting simple familiar words when they’ve read a story several times
  • Spend time on quiet activities like jigsaws, picture matching games, lotto and dominoes which build concentration and turn taking skills, as well as helping learning about colours, shapes and numbers
  • Make simple musical instruments, such as dry pasta in a plastic bottle to make a shaker, and encourage children to join in with the rhythm of a favourite song

Involving others

Being able to understand others’ needs, taking turns and sharing are important social skills to develop for school. Here’s how you can encourage your child to play in small groups and talk to friends about what they like to do.

  • Talk to your child about how it feels when others want the toys they’re playing with, and the importance of being able to share. When they fall out with a friend or sibling, help them to see what they can do to sort out the situation and learn for next time
  • Encourage them to talk about the things they like to play with or to do, and show them how to join in with other children. For example, saying things like ‘I’ve got a car too’
  • Take photos when you’re out and about or doing an activity. Later you can look at them together and talk about what happened, what they enjoyed, what they found hard and how they felt

Useful links

  • What to expect, when?– Guidance to your child’s learning and development in the early years foundation stage

Page last reviewed: 16-04-2024

Next review due: 16-04-2027