The Importance of Play

By: Paige Silcox | June 10, 2016

“Look at her, you can just smell the wood burning.”

My Aunt Janie said this to me one day when we were playing with my first baby and it’s one of those things that has always stuck with me. It was true; my three month old was playing with stacking boxes,just putting one inside the other and taking it back out again, but the look of intense concentration on her face made it clear that the wood was burning, neural pathways being formed, connections being.

For infants and toddlers learning is play, and vice versa. There is no dividing line. Exploring their world with their five senses is instinctive. Not only that, it is crucial to their physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development and the beauty of it all is that as a parent…very little is required of you for this to happen. Your baby will play and grow from that play whether it is facilitated or not. That said, there are so many fun ways you can participate and encourage that growth.

Of course, your child’s age, developmental stage, and personality will set some parameters, but in general, infant and toddler play requires very little effort on your part. There are lots of resources available that outline developmental stages and suggested activities, but your child’s abilities and interests can be your guiding light. Your newborn’s fascination with your face and your voice can tell you she wants to interact, hear you talk or sing, watch you make funny faces, or just smile. Your six month old’s constant grabbing and shoving things in his mouth can indicate he is working on hand eye coordination and (depending on other signs of readiness) maybe it’s time to try some solid foods! Your one year old’s interest in other children might inspire you to schedule playdates or start visiting the playground.

As they become mobile, it’s fun to encourage things like pulling up, crawling, and toddling. It used to drive me nuts to watch my dad dangle toys just out of my daughter’s reach to encourage her to go after them. It seemed cruel to me to tease her, but I quickly realized that as long as she was laughing and making an effort, the activity was not only effective in building her strength and motivating her to try new ways of moving…it was FUN! And when it stopped being fun for her, she had no problem making that clear and PopPop immediately gave her the toy. From that, I learned that presenting challenges and encouraging problem solving can start at a very early age.

Even every day routines and activities, while they may seem like chores to you, can be fun for your baby. Bath time, meal time, trips to the grocery store…any and all of these are playtime for your little one. They will most certainly experience it that way and if you, the parent, can see it that way too, even the most stressful chores become a little easier. Not to sound too much like Mary Poppins here, but a spoonful of sugar (sub agave nectar, if you’re into that) actually does help the medicine go down. Splash with them in the bathtub, fingerpaint in the applesauce, point out all the different colors in the produce aisle of the grocery store. And then involve them in cleaning up afterward, because even that can be play at the right age.

Speaking as a mom (whose only claim to parenting expertise comes from successfully getting my two to ages 7 and 9 so far) my best advice is not to think so hard about it that it becomes work to you. Providing opportunities and a safe environment in which to explore is really the biggest hurdle. It’s strange that it even needs to be said, but it’s something I need to hear from time to time when my kids were tiny and even now that they’re older: have fun playing with them. Allow time for both individual and interactive play, offer developmentally appropriate toys (and allow your kiddo to ignore them and play with the box instead), encourage interests whenever possible. And then…just sit back and smell the wood burn.

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