Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
Parents can encourage activities that enhance young children's mental development. Pre-operational children (ages 2 to 7 years) learn in a very concrete, hands-on manner, so direct play and interaction are the best vehicles for teaching them concepts. There are many fun concrete skills children can practice to expand their concentration, memory, abstract thinking and decision-making abilities.
Age-appropriate puzzles are fun challenges that encourage problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Simple board games can also encourage problem-solving skills as well as teach young children how to follow a set of directions. In addition, games and puzzles can help teach categorization (e.g., sorting into groups by type, shape, or color), concentration and memory skills. As children grow, the rules and objectives of the games they play can become more complicated and interesting. Classic games like Checkers are good to introduce at this time. Many fun puzzles and board games can be purchased in the store, but families can also easily make their own. For example, extra photos or large magazine pictures can be covered with clear plastic contact paper and then cut into large, irregular shapes to make jigsaw puzzles.
Throughout the pre-operational period, young children continue to benefit from make-believe play. By creating their own imaginary setting and placing themselves within it, kids learn to stretch their imagination and creative thinking skills. Most children spontaneously play games of "pretend" in which they act like something other than themselves, like a dinosaur, or a princess. Though such games may not make sense to parents, children will still generally benefit from playing them. Parents can encourage such make-believe play by simply jumping into the game as best they can. Many children will be in total glee that Mom or Dad are playing along. However, some children have an internalized set of directions or beliefs surrounding their make-believe scene and will promptly correct any adult who doesn't play by these hidden rules that seem so obvious to them. So long as children aren't hitting or screaming to make their point, parents should just play along and adjust to their child's creative train of thought as best they can.
When children are out of ideas themselves, parents can take a turn creating the make-believe setting and encourage the little ones to play along. Parents' make-believe play can be as silly and off-the-wall as what their children come up with, or it can be more structured in nature so as to provide lessons about specific topics. Themes for adult-driven make-believe play can include nurturing and caring scenes (such as taking care of a baby or playing house) or rough and tumble, interactive scenes (such as playing good guys vs. bad guys, or pretending to be a wild animal). Parents should encourage a variety of different forms of play (even if they're not always excited to play all varieties themselves). So long as play themes are not violent or hurtful, they are likely okay.
Make-believe "pretend" play can be enhanced through the use of props or costumes. Parents can purchase all kinds of dress-up clothes and plastic toys that replicate objects in the adult world (such as kitchens, cars, light sabers, etc). However, make-believe props do not have to be expensive. An old shirt of Mom's plus pieces of ribbon can work as a ball gown. Hats from Grandma's old trunk of clothing can work well as accessories. As well, the kitchen table with a blanket spread over the top can become a cave, while a few empty toilet paper rolls taped together and decorated can become a magician's wand. Creating the wand or other props can become a crafts project.
Because children of this age learn so much through make-believe play, it's no surprise that many young children like to pretend that they're doing whatever activities they see their parents doing around the house. Parents can capitalize on children's natural interest in adult activities by enlisting them to assist with household chores. Even though chore activities may seem monotonous to adults, they can serve as educational opportunities for children. For example, younger toddlers can sort laundry into different piles based on color and clothing type (e.g., pants vs. shirts). Older preschoolers can help prepare meals or snacks; an activity which can teach them about making healthy food choices, kitchen safety, and the art of preparing tasty things to eat. Young school-aged children can be given routine chores to complete and to take pride in, such as setting the table for dinner, making their bed, or putting away their own clothes. Recipe creation can be another fun activity for all ages.
When children help with chores and household tasks, it's important to keep in mind that the definition of "help" may need to be made quite flexible, particularly when very little children are "helping". Some of what children think is helping will actually be counterproductive from the perspective of adults. Whenever possible, parents should remain calm and encouraging towards helping children rather than harshly correcting them for failing to meet adult standards. It is best to wait until the child has become distracted or otherwise occupied before taking over and correcting any mistakes children may have made. The point of allowing children to help with household chores and activities is to promote family bonding, and enhance children's learning opportunities and self-esteem, not to perfect the household cleaning regime.