Do you play with your child? While playtime with an adult is not as much of an existential need as nourishment, attention, and physical touch, it IS a precious opportunity that you don’t want to miss.
Playtime presents many ways to help your child develop foundational social skills, develop critical thinking, and enhance language. Play interactions are rich with elements we often take for granted—things like bonding, reciprocity, and problem solving—all building blocks for little brains.
When playing with your child, attend to his/her interests, while expanding play with your own ideas. This takes some focus, so turn off the TV and leave your phone or tablet in another room while you’re interacting with your child.
- BONDING– Attending to your child’s play sends a message that you value your child and respect his/her activities, thoughts, and feelings. While not every moment of your day can or should be completely focused on your child (you do have housework and many other things to attend to), carving out time to play with your child communicates that you think s/he is important and worthy of your attention.
- RECIPROCITY– All social interactions are built on a foundation of reciprocity, or turn-taking. When playing “firefighter”, you may call your child on the phone, and s/he responds by getting into the fire truck and racing to the scene. Or while building together with blocks, you may name colors as your child imitates your words. This establishes a social pattern of you/me/you/me. Understanding and predicting that pattern helps your child develop social thinking habits like listening and responding, sequencing information, and conducting conversations.
- PROBLEM SOLVING– attending to your child’s play gives you an opportunity to transform moments of frustration into positive problem-solving experiences. For example, if your child’s action figure is stuck inside a toy truck, model the step-by-step skills involved in persevering and finding solutions. Saying “it’s stuck!” (naming the problem), and “what can we do?” (actively seeking solutions) teaches your child to persevere and problem solve before demonstrating frustration. Saying “let’s try this!” shows your child that there is often more than one way to solve a problem.
Children who interact meaningfully with an adult during play will engage in more sophisticated play and develop richer vocabularies. They will also be better prepared to interact with adults and peers once they hit preschool and school age. Most of all, giving your child your undivided attention for at least a short period each day helps him or her develop a strong sense of self and belief in his/her own value.
Take the time to get down to your child’s level and play! You’ll have fun together, and give your child gifts that strengthen his/her development on many levels.