(Parenting.com) -- Parents of future athletes, scientists, judges and corner-office executives, take note: An enriched play environment is critical to a baby's development and teaches skills he will use later in life.
At a play group at a friend's house, 3-month-old Ben lies on his back while his mother blows bubbles for him. He does his best to follow with his eyes the different-size bubbles floating all around him. He squeals with glee each time he touches one.
Seven-month-old Amy lies in her crib at home, sucking her big toe. She examines it up close and decides to try the other foot.
One-year-old Trevor walks past his Mommy and Me classmates to the toy kitchen. He opens and closes the cabinets while his classmate, Daniel, plays with the refrigerator. They hardly seem to notice one another because they are so engrossed in their own activity.
Beginning in babyhood, play is inexorably linked to learning, socialization, development and even intellect.
Research has found that the availability of play materials (like toys and games) is one of the most consistent predictors of intelligence.
Playthings don't have to be expensive or new and, ideally, shouldn't be electronic because that means the toy is likely doing the work for the babies.
Simple, inexpensive, "open-ended" playthings (items that babies can interact with any way they like) will do the trick just fine (see "Cheap Toys Do the Trick!").
According to the groundbreaking book "Einstein Never Used Flash Cards," "play is to early childhood what gas is to a car," as it's "the very fuel of every intellectual activity that our children engage in."
Here are the most important benefits of play:
Play makes kids smarter
Playtime and interacting with toys are the primary methods by which children acquire many basic skills. Consider a child playing with a train set. Not only is she actively learning about trains but about how wheels operate, how to utilize tracks and even how gravity works. When that same child sorts those trains, she learns colors, numbers, sizes and shapes.
What you can do: Turn off the TV and educational DVDs and pull out the dolls, cars, balls and bubbles.
Play helps social development
Taking turns, collaboration, following rules, empathy and self-regulation -- these are just some of the social skills play underscores. It helps children learn the rules of social interaction that will, in turn, help them in all of their relationships. Babies who play well together are able to work well together, which translates into good social skills.
What you can do: Whether it's a play date or a trip to the playground, provide opportunities for your tot to interact with children his age. These moments build the foundation for future social relationships and exert external pressure for them to act in socially desirable ways.
Play helps develop impulse control
It has often been said that play is the work of children and, indeed, it is more work than it appears. Free play, in particular, is not so "free."
It's all about self-control and following social rules, which requires tremendous impulse control. Children who engage in dramatic play (such as Trevor and Daniel in the aforementioned Mommy and Me class) score higher on tests of social responsibility. More impulsive children tend to show the biggest improvement when given the opportunity to play more.
What you can do: Don't be quick to create a play agenda when hanging out with your child or hosting a play date with others. Give children the room and the materials (such as balls, boxes and shape sorters) to create "free" play on their own terms.
Play reduces stress
"What stress?" you may wonder. Sure, your child gets to take naps, eat snacks and roam freely for most of the day, but childhood involves learning social rules, controlling impulses, doing what adults say and coping with separations -- and they're not even toddlers yet!
What you can do: If you're facing what is likely to be an anxiety-provoking situation for your baby (a doctor's appointment, a holiday dinner with lots of unfamiliar faces, etc.), try to arrive early with toys and enjoy play time with your child beforehand.
This will help redirect focus away from the anxiety and settle him into a new environment through familiar stimuli.
Play improves concentration, attention span and memory
Attention and concentration are learned skills, and play is one of the most natural and enjoyable ways for a child to begin developing these skills. We have all seen a toddler so lost in play that she doesn't even hear when you call her name.
This focus is the same skill a child needs years later to write a term paper, listen to a lecture or perform a piano concerto.
What you can do: Instead of getting mad when your child is so busy with her blocks that she doesn't look up when you call her, be patient. She's developing an important skill!
Play aids in physical development
Improved coordination, fine motor skills, gross motor skills and muscle strength are all benefits of play. It also prevents obesity.
Children who are used to spending free time playing grow up to be physically active teenagers and adults. Sensorimotor play, which uses both senses and muscles, allows an infant or toddler to discover his own body and its abilities.
Preschool children develop this awareness through both small-muscle activity, like getting both hands to work together, and large-muscle activity, such as walking, running and climbing.
What you can do: Let your toddler kick a ball, crawl through the sand at the beach or initiate a game of patty-cake. Mastery of the physical body promotes self-esteem and provides a feeling of accomplishment.
Play helps children understand the way things work
Have you ever noticed how children do things over and over again? Whether it's climbing the baby slide and sliding down over and over or kicking a ball repeatedly, these activities result in the same thing: mastery.
Children master new skills through repetitive play; conquering that skill means moving to the next level. Once a baby learns to walk, she will try to run. Once she learns to stack blocks, she will start to build more complex structures.
What you can do: If she's happily occupied with one toy, don't lure her to the next. Let her experiment with repetitive play.
Play helps develop mathematical thinking
When children play with trains, puzzles or almost any other toy, they are playing directly with math without knowing it. Play teaches children about the relationships between things, hence it helps them develop the type of reasoning that aids in mathematical performance.
What you can do: Pull out the Legos. Toddlers know that if they put one Lego on top of another they will have two. They know if they have two Legos and you have five, you have more.
Even though they do not know the words, they are learning about addition and subtraction. Who says you have to wait until kindergarten?
Play promotes language and literacy
Playing with other children requires your tot to use and be exposed to language. Little ones who frequently engage in play, particularly sociodramatic play, show an increase in the total number of words used, the length of their sentences and the complexity of their speech.
What you can do: Give him blocks. Yes, blocks. In 2007, Seattle Children's Hospital Research Institute and the University of Washington conducted a study of 175 toddlers, half of whom were given two sets of building blocks. Those who played with blocks scored 15 percent higher on their language assessment than those who didn't.
The study's authors theorized that block play may have replaced other activities that don't encourage language development (such as television and baby DVDs) and may even improve attention capacity.
Play allows children to voice difficult feelings
Powerful feelings -- especially negative ones like anger, jealousy, anxiety and fear -- can be overwhelming for children. Play provides a voice and a healthy outlet for the expression of those negative and overwhelming emotions, and it's important for parents to give children space to explore them.
What you can do: Give your tot the room to act out her feelings, whatever they may be, in play. It reduces the likelihood of her acting out in real life.
Cheap toys do the trick!
Many parents think they need to buy the latest fad toy. In reality, simple toys are just as beneficial.
Some active toys -- the ones with the bells and whistles -- prompt kids to sit back and be entertained by pushing buttons. But passive toys make for active kids. When the toy is simple, a child is forced to be creative, dynamic and engaged on an entirely different level, which enables and promotes development.
Here are some simple and inexpensive toys and their developmental benefits:
-- Blocks promote fine and gross motor skills
-- Bubbles promote eye development and visual tracking
-- Dolls promote sociodramatic and pretend play
-- Boxes prompt imagination and creativity
-- Bowls prompt auditory stimulation and cause and effect
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