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Children's Wisconsin importance of play

Simon says: Playing with your kids has many health benefits

There is nothing I love more than watching my patients grow from newborns into toddlers and onward from there. Parents and caregivers play a critical role in making sure they are eating properly, staying up to date on their vaccinations, enjoying safe sleeping environments and other important needs. But did you know that playtime with your child is just as critical? Playtime with and for your kids, even from early on, has important benefits for healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. 

Through play, kids develop cognitive skills such as vocabulary, literacy and math, they gain physical abilities and build social and emotional skills. Playtime offers kids learning opportunities that cannot be done on a screen or worksheet. 

Sadly, despite all the benefits of play, statistics show that the amount of time children have to play has been declining. Screen time and tightly structured schedules juggling work, school and after-school activities are among the top reasons for the decline in playtime for kids. 

Good news! It doesn’t have to be all or nothing! Here are a few ways you can incorporate play into your child’s day. 

The basics

  • First of all, keep it simple. Play doesn’t have to be complex. Your child doesn’t need the latest and greatest toys or gadgets.

  • Second, mix it up. Play can be physical, pretend, indoor or outdoor.

  • Third, it doesn’t always have to be parent directed. Parent supervised, yes, but unstructured play lets kids develop their natural urges to play. Kids learn a lot from child-driven activities.

Here are some activities I recommend to my patients broken down by age.

Newborn to 6 months 

  • Parents, I know the first few months are exhausting with a newborn, so like I said earlier, keep it simple!

  • Responding and reacting to your baby’s smile with a smile of your own starts to build social and emotional skills.

  • Have a “conversation” with your baby by imitating your baby’s coos and babbles. Let your baby lead the way.

  • Tummy time! Tummy time helps develop muscles in the neck, back and shoulders and helps with visual, motor and sensory development. Babies should always be awake for tummy time. Never put a baby to sleep on their belly.

  • Have a few interesting objects (think brightly colored toys) for your baby to see and grab when they can. Make sure it is safe for them to bring to their mouth. Commonly, babies explore and experience new textures by putting things in their mouths.

  • Read to your baby. It helps build the bond between parent and baby and helps develop vocabulary down the road.

7 to 12 months

  • Most babies will be able to crawl and some will be able to pull themselves up by 10 months old. Make sure they are able to explore in a safe environment to help develop physical abilities.

  • Peek-a-boo is a fun way to interact and bond with your baby.

  • Look in a mirror with your baby and let him see different facial expressions.

  • Keep reading! Try developing a bedtime routine that includes reading a book. 

1 to 3 years 

  • Inspire creativity by letting your child play with simple objects. You know the empty Amazon box? See what your creative toddler can do with that. Blocks and puzzles also help encourage creativity and problem solving.

  • Encourage pretend play with your child. Pretend to drink tea out of a cup. Make up scenes from favorite books.

  • Now that your child can stand on their own two feet, show them what physical things they can do. Hop, stand on one leg, dance! Try games like Simon Says.

  • Music is great for brain development. Play music, sing songs, even make up songs and rhythms while you play. Bonus! Singing songs is another way to help develop vocabulary.

  • Keep reading! After you finish a page, you can have your child point out different colors or objects in the book. Have your child help you turn the page. 

4 to 6 years 

  • Get outside! Go for a walk. Explore nature. Learn to ride a bike. Draw a hopscotch on the sidewalk. All these activities and more stimulate brain and physical development.

  • Encourage time for play with peers for more social development (while practicing social distancing and other COVID-19 precautions). Let kids develop problem solving skills by working out disagreements without intervening, unless someone could get hurt.

  • Tell stories to your child and ask questions about what they remember about it.

  • Find fun ways to mix in creativity with responsibility. For example, play house or restaurant. Your child can help with chores while playing house, write a menu for dinner or help clear dishes from the “restaurant.”

  • Keep reading! As your child gets a little older, they will recognize letters and words. Encourage participation to further cognitive development. 

There is not just one right way to play. These are just a few ideas to inspire play and help kids to grow into healthy adults. The American Association of Pediatrics website has great resources for parents including play and tummy time. As always, if you have questions about playtime or any other health and well-being question about your child, always talk to your pediatrician.