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.

Amy Webb, PhD is a scholar turned stay-at-home mom with two young sons. With her blog, The Thoughtful Parent, she brings academic child development research into the lives of parents in the trenches of child-rearing. She does not claim to be a parenting guru, but rather a translator of academic research into knowledge that parents can actually use.

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