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Although there has been a big push toward academics for young children in recent years, the research continues to show that play is really the engine for learning among our little ones. It may look frivolous to us, but play is really helping our kids learn valuable lessons, test out roles and figure out their place in the world.


As a parent, you can foster playtime in ways that can make it even more beneficial for their developing brains and social skills.

1. Use spatial language

Remember the last time you tried to assemble some IKEA furniture? That is a test of your spatial skills if ever there was one. If you want your kids to develop better spatial skills, play is a perfect way to start. Building blocks, construction sets and magnetic tiles are classic toys that still work best for developing these skills.

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The key, however, is guidance from adults. Using words like “over,” “under” and “next to” are how kids pick up on directionality and spatial understanding.

We take these concepts for granted—but for young developing minds, this is the first step in later engineering magic.


2. Let them (and their imaginations) take the lead

Yes, we are the parents and we technically know more than the kids, but when it comes to play they are the experts. Besides providing boundaries to ensure safety, we should try to allow our kids imaginations to lead their play where they want to go.

For parents that can be a challenge—we think we need to make it “more fun” or “educational,” but kids generally have an idea of the type of play that interests them the most. In fact, research backs this up, too. Studies indicate that children whose parents follow their lead and pace in playtime developed better cognitive skills, such as mental flexibility and controlling impulses. The same was seen among kids whose parents provided guidance and scaffolding in a task or game, but did not take over the scenario.


3. Stick with the basics

In our age of technology, classic toys like blocks, dolls, tools and books may seem old fashioned. There are no electronics, beeps, lights or touch screens. For kids, however, classic toys are like brain food.

These toys are classic for a reason—they are open-ended.

This means kids have to use their brain power and imagination to create new ways of playing with these toys each time they use them. Beeps and lights are fun, but if that is all a toy can do, the novelty will wear off quickly. Classic toys have longevity and brain-building power because they can be made into anything.


There are real language-learning differences, too. Although research is new in this area, early studies are showing that infants vocalize less when playing with electronic toys compared to classic toys or books. Relatedly, adults tend to talk to infants less while they are playing with electronic toys, rather than classic toys. This is important, of course, because the number of words children hear related directly to their language development.

4. Don’t be afraid to label and repeat

If you are a parent to a toddler, you know that repetition is a big part of your life. Your child probably wants to hear the same story every day, play with the same toy and maybe even wear the same shirt. They really aren’t just trying to annoy you. Underneath all the repetition is a brain hard at work figuring out the world.

Research tells us that the same repetition in language development works, too. Kids whose parents use more words and repeat words tend to learn more language by age two than children of parents who do not.

In the case of language development, quantity really does matter. However, it is not just quantity that is key. Repetition is important because it aides kids in learning to segment language into individual words.

As a parent, this labeling and repeating may make you feel like an ongoing episode of Sesame Street—but bear with it for a short time. This period of development will pass and soon enough that same child will be teaching you vocabulary they learned at school.


5. Let the outdoors be their playmate

Most of us know that kids enjoy the outdoors, but kids also physiologically need the outdoors. The benefits for both brain and body are endless. In the outdoors, kids practice their gross motor skills, their eyes adjust to differing dimensions and their brains come alive with questions and insights about textures, water and light.

In certain parts of the country where urban kids do not have easy access to nature, some pediatricians are actually prescribing outdoor time.


Having two very active boys, I have learned that the outdoors has to be part of their day, regardless of the weather. In the summer, this is easy—if they are bounding with energy early in the morning, outside time is the answer. Nature becomes just another play mate to us—it’s always changing. New bugs appear, the garden looks different each day and biking or the pool is the best exercise around. In the winter, it is a bit more challenging. Even in cold weather, however, a short trip outside can be a learning experience. Why is that icicle longer than the other one? Look how my breath is visible when I blow in the cold air. Nature can be an awesome classroom and the catalyst for many of the best questions.

Playing with your kids doesn’t have to be pre-planned or Pinterest-worthy. With a little guidance, even the simplest playtime can help them learn and bond with you.

Back when my husband and I were creating our wedding registry, it was a fun, low-pressure opportunity to select some new dishes and linens. After all, I knew a thing or two about stocking my home and making the "wrong decision" with thread count was the only thing that posed any risk to my sleep at night.

Fast-forward a few years to when I created a baby registry before the birth of my first child—and I found the experience to have a much steeper learning curve. Unlike those sheets, it felt like a bad swaddle or bassinet selection would be catastrophic. Unsure of what to expect from motherhood or my baby, I leaned heavily on advice from friends who already ventured into parenthood. (Starting with their reminders to take deep breaths!)

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Now a mom of three little ones under the age of four, I'm happy to be in a position to pass along some baby registry wisdom.

Go shopping with a veteran parent

As first-time parents, my husband and I barely knew the difference between a bouncer and a swing, let alone what specific features we would want. So when a mom friend recommended we head to Walmart to build my registry together—because she found them to carry the trendy brands she loved AND make registering a breeze during her pregnancy—I leapt at the chance.

By walking through the aisles together and actually getting to see the products, I was much more confident in my registry selections. Thanks to that quick, in-store tutorial from my friend, I understood exactly how to match a perfect infant car seat with an extra base and stroller—which is something I would have been clueless about on my own.

Include items at a variety of price points

When it comes down to it, a registry is really a wish list. So, while I had a personal budget for a stroller if it had to come out of my own pocket, this was an opportunity for me to ask for the stroller of my dreams. And, wouldn't you know it? A few family members went in on it together, which made a bigger price tag much more manageable.

At the same time, it's nice to include some of the smaller ticket items that are absolutely essential. I can't even begin to tell you how grateful I was to skip buying my own diapers for those first few weeks. (With super cute patterns, these are also surprisingly fun to give, too!)

Think about the gifts you would like to give

The first time I bought a mom-to-be a gift after my own child was born, I knew immediately what to look for on her registry: a diaper bag backpack, which I had come to have very strong opinions about after battling falling straps with my first diaper bag. This allowed me to feel like I had a personal touch in my gift, even if I brought one pre-selected by her.

I also appreciate it when my friends clearly incorporate their style into their registry choices, like with adorable baby outfits or nursery decor—and there's no sweeter "thank you" than a picture from a friend showing your gift in use.

Ask for things to grow with your child

Even though it's called a baby registry, there's no need to limit yourself to gifts to use before their first birthday. (To this day, I still have people who attended my baby shower to thank for the convertible bed that my oldest child sleeps in!) Knowing that, I would have included more options with long lifespans into my registry—namely, a baby carrier that can be used during the newborn months, baby months and well into the toddler years. A well-designed baby carrier would have saved my back from serious pain because it would have allowed me to comfortably and ergonomically carry my toddler as she made her way into the 25lb+ club. One brand that's designed to grow with your baby and accommodates 7-45 pounds (up to about four years old) and offers both inward and forward-facing positions is Ergobaby. With several different design and style options, you can easily find one that caters to your parenting needs. From an all-in-one carrier, like the Omni 360, that grows with baby from the newborn stages into the toddler years or a newborn-specific carrier, like the Embrace (and don't worry you can later upgrade to a carrier for an older baby, I recommend the 360 Carrier). The best part? All ergonomic designs are supportive and comfortable for both baby and parent, offering extra lumbar support with breathable, lightweight mesh styles. Everyone (even grandparents!) can get a kick out of babywearing, which is a nice and welcomed break for parents. Having one of these on my registry would have certainly made those first few years so much easier.

Motherly is your daily #momlife manual; we are here to help you easily find the best, most beautiful products for your life that actually work. We share what we love—and we may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

This article was sponsored by Ergobaby. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.


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