Being a sitter or nanny means a family has entrusted you to be a supportive and fun addition to their child’s life. They want you to bring excitement to their child’s daily routine and teach them in a way they might not be familiar with. As children grow, playtime remains important for learning and development. It’s through play that children organize and make sense of the world, work through tensions in their lives and explore creativity.

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One way they can learn is through unstructured play. Here are five things you can do as a sitter or nanny to encourage children to learn through unstructured play and its benefits:

1. Plan Free Time

The child’s time with you should have open-ended time for unstructured play. Encourage them to leave at least 30 minutes to an hour open out of their day.

2. Engage In Their Play

Make sure you are willing to participate in pretend play; dress up, act silly, and be creative. An active nanny equals a happy child. When they have fun it’s an easy transition and they will look forward to more time with you. Making their day memorable and fun.

3. Let the Child Lead

Unstructured play is time for the child to do things that interest them. You should be able to provide options but let the child pick for themselves. During this time encourage them to explore and support their decision in what they chose to do.

4. Respect When Children Play Alone

Supervision is key but it’s okay to step back and give alone time. Sometimes children want to be on their own and sometimes they want to play with others. As children play and learn, you should never be out of sight and be sure to check in occasionally to see if their preferences have changed.

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Provide “Loose Parts”

Loose parts are exactly what they sound like: they’re typically lots of small pieces that can be played with in open-ended ways. Often, but not always, they are natural items. They tend to spur children’s creativity because there is no one right way to play with them. Here are just a few examples of loose parts:

  • A basket of small smooth pebbles of different colors
  • A small container of fabric scraps of different colors and textures
  • Small blocks, spools, or balls collected in a basket
  • A collection of shells, corks, wood pieces, or nuts in the shell

The importance of play doesn’t diminish as preschoolers become school-age children. No matter what age you work with, stay aware of what’s an appropriate task for unstructured play. Remember that play is how they learn, so the more chances they have to play the better. Use this approach to unstructured play as a way to communicate with parents how their child is growing and learning while in your care.

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