Lucky kids, we often think, they just get to play all day. But, when we take a deeper look into the depths of play, the work children do by playing all day is undoubtedly more cognitively difficult than what we do sitting at our desks. After all, young kids are wired to learn (babies’ brains triple in size in the first three years of life and establish more than 1,000 trillion intricate and complex neural connections), and play is the work of childhood.
Many studies have found open-ended toys to be best for your little one’s development, and there’s a big reason for that – toys that require manipulation from your child allow the brain to be stimulated and in turn, allow those neural connections to develop. The act of playing in an open-ended manner works in the same way. When your child plays, various processes and structures begin to lay their foundation in your baby’s mind. This allows children space for optimal growth and understanding of the world around them.
Not only is play the work of childhood, but it’s necessary for little ones to play in order to process their surroundings. As they get older, you start to see glimpses of what exactly they’re picking up as it comes out in their play. (Like, when my toddler was playing with his babydolls and said to one, “OK, you play by yourself for a little bit, mama has to work.” – ouch!).
For kids, every action and interaction is something from which they learn, whether they are playing independently, with peers, or with you.
Curious about how to play with your child? Here are our favorite ways to play and the impact of those on your child’s development.
Encourage imagination with blocks
Blocks, and other similar open-ended building materials (blocks, tiles, etc.) are among the best things to play with because their uses and learning potential are limitless. A professor in graduate school once told me, “A block can be a truck, but a truck can only be a truck,” which stuck with me through the years. Blocks give children the opportunity to not only exercise their imaginations and create without boundaries, but they also offer experiences that grow knowledge in math (addition, subtraction, fractions), literacy (expressive and receptive language), and science (construction, gravity).
The best part about playing with blocks with kids is that it never gets boring – there is always something to learn, build, and discover, and since the potential is limitless, you get to flex your own imagination, too.
Puzzles help children learn fine-motor skills
Puzzles help young children begin to increase their fine-motor muscles and control as they use their fingers, hands, and wrists to manipulate the pieces. As they learn how to visually “match” pieces, they develop visual perception skills and these grow as the “work” of a puzzle gets harder. Being able to judge a puzzle piece’s size and placement and being able to turn it in your mind is a pretty complicated skill, and as children learn how to do this through many, many trials, they practice spatial awareness – the ability to see objects in relation to each other and oneself.
Here’s the coolest thing – all of the skills that children develop while working on puzzles are critical foundational skills for reading and writing. And, as a parent, there’s nothing quite like witnessing your child put together a puzzle for the first time – especially knowing all the brain power that went behind it.
Encourage touching, holding, and molding
Manipulatives, or any materials that children touch, hold, and explore with their hands and fingers (think: buttons, shells, bristle blocks, pop beads, stacking toys, etc.) also work on fine motor development. But, they have the added benefit of being one of the first experiences that introduce scientific thinking and order. They assist in fine motor development as well as scientific thinking (making hypotheses or guesses about what will happen). Children can use manipulatives to count, sort, order, or arrange into groups. And, when they do, they’re able to explore new concepts in a way that is natural and accessible.
As a parent, playing with manipulatives with your child can give you a lot of input on your child’s imagination and sense of order. Some kids naturally begin arranging things while others lean right into a pretend-play type process and create stories and imaginary concepts. Knowing your kids can give you a glimpse into the types of things that your child gravitates to and what makes them tick – all of which will be helpful for you, and them, going forward.
Engage all your child’s senses
Playing with sensory materials (like sand, water, slime, play dough, and other substances) can go two ways with young children – they tend to either love it or hate it. Sensory materials can help build fine motor control, while also giving kids a sense of texture and feeling. And, for many kids, sand and water play can be a really soothing and calming experience – perfect for having surrounding discussions about feelings and emotions.
Playing with sensory materials supports curiosity, imagination, and experimentation, and kids learn all kinds of things – like cause and effect – while enjoying these natural experiences. Sensory play is always open-ended, and since there’s no wrong way to play, kids can build confidence and curiosity while testing different ideas. Sure, things might get a little messy, but as Ms. Frizzle says, “Take chances. Make mistakes. Get messy!”
And don’t forget old-fashioned pretend play
Pretend play is a favorite among young kids, and it is one of the pillars of childhood play. The learning opportunities that coincide with pretend play are endless and result in important cognitive skills – like, cooperation, problem-solving, groupthink, leadership, language and literacy, and empathy – that your child will use in every aspect of his life going forward.
When your child engages in pretend play, she is actively experimenting with the social and emotional roles of life. As they get older and start to play cooperatively, they learn how to creatively work through problems, share responsibility, take turns, increase patience, and manage a variety of feelings and emotions.
As a parent, playing pretend with your child is like peeking through a window of their mind. What comes out in their play are the things that influence them the most in their environment. While it’s endearing to hear your silly catchphrases repeated by tiny, cute voices, pretend play is also your front row seat on the inner workings of their mind and heart, and you can use what you gather to reflect and adjust on your parenting priorities in the coming days.