Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers spend much of their time playing. But while this may seem to be just a childish way to pass the time, little ones at play are building skills that are essential foundations for later learning.

blocks-toy-kidFor example, a 3-month old mouthing a toy is developing neurons that are the “bridges” connecting information in the brain. With these neurons developing, the baby is learning to process sensory input in the mouth and simultaneously learning to coordinate hand-to-mouth movements. Each motion and touch build new neurons that develop the child’s brain in new ways. So what looks like a simple activity is, in reality, a whole lot of learning. Whew! No wonder your baby needs a nap!

Observing toddlers and preschoolers at play can be even more fascinating; as growth is incredibly explosive at this stage. A toddler stacking blocks is learning to manipulate objects with increasing dexterity, accuracy, and purpose. S/he is developing social know-how as s/he plays alongside peers. For example, a peer may knock over the block tower. Your child then experiments with how different reactions will create reactions in others. Language skills develop as children find new ways to express themselves, from crying, to using one word, to uttering phrases and sentences.

The child with his block tower may also be engaged in pretend play. He may be pretending that his block tower is a tall building or a huge birthday cake. Pretend play expands the child’s ability to process, and then express, observations of the world around him.

Following the child outside to the playground, you may observe him running, climbing, jumping and swinging. All these activities are also a child’s work. Physical play develops new skills in muscle coordination. These skills include the ability to coordinate the body in new ways to overcome obstacles. The child is also learning to process sensory input to coordinate movements. For example, the child learns that tightening his grasp of the ladder rungs helps him leverage his weight while climbing.

Because play is the primary medium for learning during early childhood, the opportunities your child has for play can help maximize the rate at which he develops new skills. Here are a few ways you can help your child make the most of his play time:

  • Provide your child with toys that facilitate growth. Blocks, puzzles, books, and pretend-play accessories like dolls or trucks will build your child’ brain much more than electronic light-and-music toys, play with a tablet, or any other screen engagement.
  • Provide opportunities for rigorous physical play, daily. This not only builds new skills but helps the child regulate his behavior.
  • Minimize distractions: turn off the TV while your child is playing. Remember, play is his or her work. S/he’ll have a harder time getting it done with the TV blasting in the background.
  • Increase engagement: An adult playing with the child can help facilitate much more rapid growth. This is because, during play, the adult can model and instruct the child in new words, concepts, and play sequences that the child would not come up with on his own. For more info on how to do this, see my post on pretend play.
  • Make it social: Children pick up new concepts and skills while playing with or even alongside, other kids. This need not be a peer your child’s exact age. Sometimes a child slightly older can be a great fit, and motivates your child to learn and try new things in imitation.