I think everyone out there would agree that children learn best when they’re engaged and having fun, right? Yet I know from personal experience it can be completely overwhelming to find the right activity for the right development stage. Children of any and every age can be learning through play – it is never too early or too late – so let’s dive in and explore some of the most common areas of play!


If you have spent even five minutes on Instagram, I am confident you will have seen some of the thousands of beautiful sensory play set ups being posted every day (and if you haven’t, be sure to check out #catkinplay for some fantastic eco-play ideas). They can be incredibly beneficial for children as it allows them to develop a whole host of skills simultaneously. 

Sensory play helps to develop fine motor control, hand eye co-ordination and problem-solving skills as they move and manipulate the various materials. Not only that, but sensory experiences help to improve memory, concentration and even build nerve connections in the brain.

Some sensory materials are unsuitable for children under 3, (such as chickpeas due to small parts) however there are plenty of taste safe alternatives that are suitable for all ages. Rainbow drops, mash potato, cooked pasta or ice are all great options. Don’t forget to use a play mat or tuff tray – it makes everything much easier to clean away afterwards!

Activity ideas: 

  • Use a pair of tongs to separate chickpeas by colour for fine motor control
  • Add food dye to spaghetti water and make a rainbow tuff tray! 
  • Make foot prints in mash potato
  • Use a scoop to transfer sensory rice from one place to another using hand eye co-ordination (a great example is shown here using a rainbow sensory board).
  • Use a slotted spoon to catch peas in a tub of water


An increasingly popular approach to learning and development is Montessori. I couldn’t begin to cover the topic fully here, but my two favourite Montessori mottos are to ‘Follow the child’ (allowing their current interests to guide you) and ‘Play is the work of the child’ (meaning that every activity a child completes should be considered as their work for the day). 

I particularly love the simplicity of Montessori activities, such as simple shape puzzles or even learning to peel and/or cut a banana independently. Furthermore, children are encouraged to ‘work’ in an uninterrupted space and with minimal adult guidance so they can develop their sense of independence and feel a true sense of accomplishment when they finally succeed.

Activity ideas: 

  • Sort loose parts by colour or shape
  • Match the parent to the child using realistic animal tiles
  • Count to then using a ten counting frame
  • Cylinder puzzles 
  • Pouring water or lentils from one jug to another.


This is perhaps one of my favourite types of play to set up. Small world play is creating a mini universe for your little one to explore. For example, if your little one is starting school or nursery, creating a small world classroom is a perfect way to explore that situation ahead of time. If they are an animal lover, setting up a farm scene is a perfect way to visit the farm without setting foot outside the door. 

Small world play is great for developing language, exploring real life events and developing emotional understanding.

Activity ideas:

  • Create a zoo set up to explore the various animals
  • Take a trip around the world by exploring a different continent each week
  • Explore how a place can change – how will it look in winter? At night?  
  • Recreate previous places you have visited. What can they remember? 
  • Create a mythical place or one from a book you’ve read together.


Loose parts play is all about gathering items (of course for children under 3 each piece should be large enough not to go in the mouth!) that can be explored in a completely ‘no wrong answer’ way. The items have no specific function or goal, but can be moved, arranged, ordered and sorted in any number of different ways. 

It is the perfect opportunity for children to explore in an open-ended way while developing creativity and imagination. 

Loose parts play can be done with regular household items, such as bottle caps, or specific loose parts sets

Activity ideas:

  • How many pieces can you stack before it falls? 
  • Grab pieces of various colours for colour exploration. 
  • Use loose parts in the garden to create a mud pie! 
  • Take a walk and see what loose parts pieces you can find (conkers, acorns etc.)
  • Add play dough as a base to build your loose parts play.



Nature themed play can encompass a range of play ideas. It could mean bringing nature inside to explore in more detail or getting out into the big outdoors and exploring what it has to offer. 

For children, a walk through the forest can be the most exciting play set up of all time. Everything has different textures, smells, colours and nothing is off limits. 

Nature play is the perfect way for children to explore cause and effect, to understand their bodies and its capabilities, learn about the environment and can even help better sleep routines and a healthy lifestyle.

Activity ideas: 

  • Take a bag or bucket when heading to the woods. See what you can gather and bring it back for some nature inspired art work. 
  • Take some toys with you on your next walk. Where would they live? Can you stack them? Sort them? Recreate them using sticks and leaves? 
  • Use a stick to write numbers and letters in mud. 
  • Make bark and leaf rubbings with crayons. 
  • Look for signs of animal life (habitats, foot prints etc). Why not take photos along the way?

The benefits of learning through play are countless, but I have definitely saved the best for last! Learning through play is – fun! Don’t be afraid to get messy, throw out the rulebook, experiment and above all else, enjoy making memories together. 

I hope you found some inspiration or new ideas. For more ideas, resources or help & support, pop over to our Instagram @CatkinToys.


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