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Activities and toys that support caregiver–child interaction in the early years


2 Sep 2019

This guide describes over 80 activities that support children’s development in their understanding of objects, other people, numbers and language.




This guide was written as a companion to our major 2018 report, Key competencies in early cognitive development: Things, people, numbers and words, with the primary aim of providing early years practitioners with practical examples of what these activities are, so that they can promote them through their ongoing work with families and children.

The learning that takes place during the first five years of life lays the foundation for all of a child's future learning. The activities listed in this guide are illustrative of the countless ways that children’s early learning is supported through their daily interactions with their parents and others.

Toys and activities are grouped according to the four ‘key competencies’, as described below, and divided into age-groups covering early infancy (birth to six months), later infancy (six to 12 months), toddlerhood (12 to 24 months), and ages 2, 3 and 4.

This resource is not intended as a shopping list or 'how to' guide, and should be used alongside existing forms of advice to parents and caregivers, such as through health visiting services or speech, language and communication support. This guide has been provided to Public Health England (PHE), and principles and examples from this document have been incorporated into the Department for Education's Hungry Little Minds campaign.

Four key competencies

In our Key competencies review, we describe how a child’s learning occurs through four core cognitive competencies that develop during the first five years of life.

  1. Children’s understanding of objects includes their knowledge of the physical properties of objects, their function and their relationship to each other. This knowledge plays a critical role in the development of problem-solving skills as children grow older, predicting their performance on intelligence tests in primary school and academic success in secondary school.
  2. Children’s theory of mind involves the ability to accurately predict the thoughts and feelings of others. Theory of mind skills are essential for children to empathise and communicate effectively. Studies show that theory of mind skills at age 4 predict children’s popularity and friendships in primary and secondary school.
  3. Children’s knowledge of numbers and numerical relationships include a child’s ability to distinguish differences in size, the recognition of numeric symbols, and the ability to count, add and subtract. Children’s understanding of numbers during the first five years is consistently associated with their mathematical achievement in primary and secondary school. Mathematical achievement in turn is consistently found to be the strongest predictor of children’s success in entering the workforce later in life.
  4. Skills to understand and communicate effectively through language include the ability to distinguish differences in sounds, a child’s understanding of vocabulary, the ability to put words together in the appropriate order, and their understanding of the various uses of language to communicate effectively. Children’s communication skills strongly impact on other important child competencies, including the competencies described in our review as well as children’s social, emotional and behavioural development. The ability to communicate effectively is also highly predictive of children’s academic attainment.

About the author

Dr Kirsten Asmussen

Kirsten is head of what works, child development, at EIF.