The act of play is a critical part of a child’s growth — and scientific research proves it. Here’s how to make the most of parent-child quality time.
Experts agree: There's more to playtime than fun and games.
Those moments of fun can provide critical building blocks for physical and emotional development.
"Play is really the work of children," says Tiffany Munzer, M.D., a fellow in developmental behavioral pediatrics at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital. "It's the way kids learn and explore the world — and how they build social skills, learn to plan and problem-solve."
A recent paper in the journal Pediatrics examined the connection.
Parents who share in the fun, authors note, play a big role in fostering growth — often in ways that might not be immediately noticed.
"Play leads to changes at the molecular level ... changes in neuronal and hormonal activity that affects behavior," Munzer says. "There really is a scientific explanation of why play is so beneficial."
She offered several tips for parents and caretakers:
How to make playtime more educational
1. Engage babies in play
It might not seem like babies and very young children have the capacity to enjoy playtime, but even simple interactions can reap big benefits.
Smiling back at your little one — and making the exchange a fun, giggly game — can begin around 2 months. The same process can guide peekaboo, too.
"Around this age, infants are starting to coo and make noise," Munzer says. "Parents often coo back. This is the most basic form of child-led play, that reciprocity back and forth."
Establishing that familiarity sets the stage for shared playtime in the months and years ahead as a child shifts into more functional and self-guided activities.
2. Make playtime interactive
As children start to take the lead in the types of play they enjoy (building blocks instead of dolls, or vice versa), parents can be instrumental in supporting those pursuits with focused interest and shared conversation.
"It's really easy and doesn't have to go outside of what kids are doing," Munzer says. "If you're in a pretend kitchen, ask open-ended questions: 'You're making soup — what will you add to the pot?'"
Such conversation helps promote the values of taking turns and teamwork.
And it needn't be spoken: Call-and-response or reciprocal songs such as "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" teach listening skills, following directions and coordination, Munzer says.
Kids naturally gravitate toward the things they enjoy; and when parents support them in these endeavors, they are more likely to learn from that activity.Tiffany Munzer, M.D.
3. Encourage imagination and make-believe
Play doesn't have to involve pricey toys, or even actual toys.
Allowing kids to take on imaginary roles or use everyday objects in other ways instills creative thinking (it's cost-effective, too). Don't underestimate the appeal of giant cardboard boxes, wrapping paper tubes or an empty laundry basket.
"Using objects in different ways allows kids to be more creative and more innovative," says Munzer, noting that the approach might be more difficult for very young children. "It helps build cognitive flexibility."
Role-playing allows youngsters to explore feelings of empathy and understanding other people's perspectives. Pretending to be a mail carrier, for example, teaches executive functioning skills such as organization and socializing; little ones simply see it as make-believe.
4. Explore different types of play
The Pediatrics report breaks down four kinds of play:
Object play (using a banana as a telephone, for instance)
Rough-and-tumble play (which can range from pat-a-cake to free play)
Outdoor play (recess games or athletics)
Social or pretend play (a category that spans dress-up play to board games)
Encourage — and join in on — a variety of play options with your child. There's no right or wrong type of play.
But, the paper's authors note, finding favorite pursuits (and sharing them) is key.
"Kids naturally gravitate toward the things they enjoy; and when parents support them in these endeavors, they are more likely to learn from that activity," Munzer says.
5. Avoid distractions during playtime
Although some benefits result from parents and children enjoying screen time together when playing educational games, digital devices can be more hindrance than help.
"Parents and trusted caregivers know their children better than any digital device and therefore can support their play and development of their minds the best," Munzer says.
Make playtime unplugged when you can. Recent American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines say parents should limit daily screen time for children ages 2 to 5 to one hour.
Still, there is room for variety.
"Parents can still support their children when engaging in digital technology, by taking an active role," Munzer says. "Watch together, talk about what they are viewing and make sure the content is educational."
6. Let kids take risks (and make mistakes)
Beyond letting children take the lead in the types of games and hobbies they prefer, allow them to explore their surroundings.
One proven approach: plenty of time on the playground. Experts recommend an hour of physical activity each day, if possible.
"Kids can learn bravery and courage from taking risks within reason," says Munzer, noting that such awareness could come from conquering the monkey bars or climbing a slide from the bottom up.
"It's amazing the confidence this can build and positive effects gross motor play has on helping children feel calm — not to mention the benefits of physical activity for overall health."
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