Menu

5 ways to make playtime good for your child’s brain, too

Some of the best brain-boosting activities are more old-fashioned than Pinterest-worthy—and we’re good with that!

5 ways to make playtime good for your child’s brain, too

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.

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.

A very important letter for new mamas

Listen, mom-guilt is a dirty liar. Yes, it's your job to fill your little human's needs, but you matter too. Don't forget to take care of yourself. Hang out with friends, take a drive blaring 90's hip hop or shower without interruptions—trust me, you'll be a better person (and mom) because of it.

Dear new mom,

You will shave again someday. Today is not that day.

Set expectations low, my friend, and set your partner's lower—at least where body hair and overall hygiene are concerned.

That conversation could go something like this: “From now on let's not consider shaving a “standard," but more like a gift that happens on birthdays and the first day of summer."

Voila, you are a gift-giving genius. You know what else is a gift? Shaving the inch and a half of skin that is between your skinny jeans and your boots. You're welcome world.

You will not be perfect at parenting.

Boom.

I have yet to meet a perfect mother, but when I do, she's going to be a tiger who is insanely good at making up songs. (Daniel Tiger's mom, we salute you.)

Keep reading Show less
Life

14 outdoor toys your kids will want to play with beyond summer

They transition seamlessly for indoor play.

With Labor day weekend in the rearview and back-to-school in full swing, most parents are fresh out of boxes to check on their "Fun Concierge" hit list. It's also the point of diminishing returns on investing in summer-only toys. So with that in mind, we've rounded up some of our favorite toys that are not only built to last but will easily make the transition from outdoor to indoor play. Even better, they're Montessori-friendly and largely open-ended so your kids can get a ton of use out of them.

From sunny backyard afternoons to rainy mornings stuck inside, these toys are sure to keep little ones engaged and entertained.

Meadow ring toss game

Plan Toys meadow ring toss game

Besides offering a fantastic opportunity to hone focus, coordination, determination and taking turns, lawn games are just plain fun. Set them up close together for the littles and spread them out when Mom and Dad get in on the action. With their low profile and rope rings, they're great for indoors as well.

$30

Balance board

Plan Toys balance board

Balance boards are a fabulous way to get the wiggles out. This one comes with a rope attachment, making it suitable for even the youngest wigglers. From practicing their balance and building core strength to working on skills that translate to skateboarding and snowboarding, it's a year-round physical activity that's easy to bring inside and use between Zoom classes, too!

$75

Detective set

Plan Toys detective setDetective Set

This set has everything your little detective needs to solve whatever mystery they might encounter: an eye glasses, walkie-talkie, camera, a red lens, a periscope and a bag. Neighborhood watch? Watch out.

$40

Wooden doll stroller

Janod wooden doll strollerWooden Doll Stroller

Take their charges on a stroll around the block with this classic doll stroller. With the same versatility they're used to in their own ride, this heirloom quality carriage allows their doll or stuffy to face them or face the world.

$120

Sand play set

Plan Toys sand set

Whether you're hitting the beach or the backyard sandbox, this adorable wooden sand set is ready for action. Each scoop has an embossed pattern that's perfect for sand stamping. They're also totally suitable for water play in the wild or the bathtub.

$30

Water play set

Plan Toys water play set

Filled with sand or water, this tabletop sized activity set keeps little ones busy, quiet and happy. (A mama's ideal trifecta 😉). It's big enough to satisfy their play needs but not so big it's going to flood your floors if you bring the fun inside on a rainy day.

$100

Mini golf set

Plan Toys mini golf set

Fore! This mini golf set is lawn and living room ready. Set up a backyard competition or incorporate into homeschooling brain breaks that shift focus and build concentration.

$40

Vintage scooter balance bike

Janod retro scooter balance bike

Pedals are so 2010. Balance bikes are the way to go for learning to ride a bike while skipping the training wheels stage altogether. This impossibly cool retro scooter-style is built to cruise the neighborhood or open indoor space as they're learning.

$121

Wooden rocking pegasus

plan toys wooden rocking pegasus

Your little will be ready to take flight on this fun pegasus. It gently rocks back and forth, but doesn't skimp on safety—its winged saddle, footrests and backrest ensure kids won't fall off whether they're rocking inside or outside.

$100

Croquet set

Plan Toys croquet set

The cutest croquet set we've ever seen! With adorable animal face wooden balls and a canvas bag for easy clean up, it's also crafted to stick around awhile. Round after round, it's great for teaching kiddos math and problem-solving skills as well.

$45

Wooden digital camera

fathers factory wooden digital camera

Kids get the chance to assemble the camera on their own then can adventure anywhere to capture the best moments. With two detachable magnetic lenses, four built-in filters and video recorder, your little photographer can tap into their creativity from summertime to the holidays.

$179

Wooden bulldozer toy

plan toys wooden bulldozer toy

Whether they're digging up sand in the backyad or picking up toys inside, kids can get as creative as they want picking up and moving things around. Even better? Its wooden structure means it's not an eye sore to look at wherever your digger drops it.

$100

Pull-along hippo

janod toys pull along hippo toy

There's just something so fun about a classic pull-along toy and we love that they seamlessly transition between indoor and outdoor play. Crafted from solid cherry and beechwood, it's tough enough to endure outdoor spaces your toddler takes it on.

$33

Baby forest fox ride-on

janod toys baby fox ride on

Toddlers will love zooming around on this fox ride-on, and it's a great transition toy into traditional balance bikes. If you take it for a driveway adventure, simply use a damp cloth to wipe down the wheels before bringing back inside.

$88

We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

Shop

It's science: Why your baby stops crying when you stand up

A fascinating study explains why.

When your baby is crying, it feels nearly instinctual to stand up to rock, sway and soothe them. That's because standing up to calm babies is instinctual—driven by centuries of positive feedback from calmed babies, researchers have found.

"Infants under 6 months of age carried by a walking mother immediately stopped voluntary movement and crying and exhibited a rapid heart rate decrease, compared with holding by a sitting mother," say authors of a 2013 study published in Current Biology.

Even more striking: This coordinated set of actions—the mother standing and the baby calming—is observed in other mammal species, too. Using pharmacologic and genetic interventions with mice, the authors say, "We identified strikingly similar responses in mouse pups as defined by immobility and diminished ultrasonic vocalizations and heart rate."

Keep reading Show less
News