What is concrete play? Well, it doesn’t mean letting your 4-year old help Dad lay down the new cement walkway. Concrete play is any kind of tangible, hands-on play where your child uses his body or hands to manipulate things. The flipside of concrete play is abstract play. Think of it as hands-on versus hands-off. Let’s say you want to teach your child about apples – how to count them or the different types. If you show him a flashcard with three apples, discuss them, and point as you count them, that is considered abstract. Concrete play would be placing three real apples on the table so your child can touch them, pick them up to count them, smell them and even taste them. According to Early Childhood consultant Sylvia Ford, when engaged in concrete play, your child will actually absorb the information better than if he was just shown a picture.

Children under the age of seven benefit the most from concrete play. Ford explains, “Concrete play sets a foundation for knowledge of the abstract later on.” Children who have a lot of exposure to concrete play will much better understand abstract concepts later – when their brains are ready. Concrete play “helps the brain so naturally build on what it already knows. With abstract play, it’s all new and children have to take it all in at once,” explains Ford.

So when can you safely introduce abstract play? Around age seven is when a child is capable of focusing on multiple things simultaneously. Before that, there is only singular focus. They may switch from one thing to another, but only one at a time. You’ll notice the difference too – your child’s attention span for concrete play will be a lot longer than during abstract play.

Don’t worry if you’ve secretly been prepping your kid for Harvard with U.S. presidents flashcards. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional flashcard, as long as you are also engaging your child in concrete play. Society tells parents that in these formative years the brain is laying down pathways to use later, and that’s the window to prepare kids for school. But parents often take that as their cue to pump their kids with as much information as possible. Unfortunately, a child’s brain that is drilled with the abstract will rise to the occasion, but it will be because the brain learns to cope, and not necessarily because it truly understands the information presented. Parents may then hear the worrisome words ‘learning disability.’ However, their child may not be LD; but rather, their brains have simply had too much abstract and not enough concrete play early on.

Ford offers these concrete play activities you can try at home:

  • What you need: one kitty litter tub, an old apple juice jug, ice cube tray or egg carton, mini kitchen tongs, a small scooper or cup, a bag of pom poms(those little fuzzy balls you find at craft stores), rice or water, and a rubber toy creature (like a frog) with an open mouth. How to play: Fill the tub with pom poms , raw rice or even water if you’re feeling brave. Tell your child to grab the pom poms with the tongs and put them into the other containers or the toy’s mouth. (likewise, use the scooper for rice or water) He can categorize them by size and color. If you use a creature, the game lasts 10-20 minutes longer due to the child using his imagination more. Benefits? Math, physics, and science, hand-eye coordination and fine-motor skills. He can fill the jug, so he sees volume and weight change. Want to do it again next week? Change one thing – like the toy, or color the water before you put it into the tub. It will be familiar, but fresh to your child.


  • What you need: Two large laundry baskets, a few big rubber balls, an area to play/run. In this one, you create a pattern of any kind for your child to follow. How to play: First, demonstrate a pattern it can be anything. For example, take the ball out of the basket and kick it to the fence. Run to the fence then throw the ball over the bush or laundry line and shout Incoming! Then hop across the grass, pick up the ball and put it in the basket. Your child will watch and then follow. The idea is to use any simple tools for this, as long as they are safe. This is a good game to take out when another child comes over, especially if your child has trouble sharing his toys. Benefits? Math and timing, as well as language, motor, social and emotional skills.

So file away the flashcards and pull out the pom poms. Get creative with home objects. It’s time to let your child get his hands on everything!