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Is play necessary for development?
Absolutely. Play is crucial for your child's social, emotional, physical, and cognitive growth. It's your child's way of learning about his body and the world, and he'll use all five senses to do it, especially in the first year.
What does this feel like when I touch it? What does this sound like when I squeeze it?
What will happen if I push this or pull that? Crawl over there? Pull myself up on this?
Exploration is the heart of play, and in your child's mind any experiment counts, even hurling a bowl of cereal off the highchair tray. Development experts are fond of saying that play is the work of children (and cleaning up after play seems to be the work of parents).
As your child moves into the toddler years, his play will become more imaginative and complex. Through play, he'll exercise key skills and qualities, such as independence, creativity, curiosity, and problem-solving.
It can also be an important place to explore feelings and values and develop social skills. Long before your child feels comfortable sharing his favorite toy with his sister, he may offer it to a doll.
His first spontaneous "please" and "thank you" may slip out at an imaginary tea party. And what parent can resist wasting a perfectly good bandage the first time her child says his teddy got hurt?
What types of play are best for my child?
It depends on the stage of development. Since play is the tool your child uses to learn about the world, the skills she's working on right now are your biggest clues to choosing the best activities.
For instance, if your 3-month-old is learning how to grab objects, let her play with large, soft toys. If at 12 months she's exploring cause and effect, play a simple version of hide-and-seek with a blanket or by hiding around corners.
Here are some guidelines for the types of play your child may be most interested in at different stages, according to Catherine Marchant, a play therapist at Wheelock College in Boston:
- Social play
Interacting with you and others is important throughout the first year. Infants like to smile, look, and laugh. Older babies enjoy games such as peekaboo and itsy-bitsy spider.
- Object play
Touching, banging, mouthing, throwing, pushing, and otherwise experimenting with things is fascinating for the 4- to 10-month-old set.
- Functional and representational play
Pretending to use familiar objects in an appropriate way – pushing a toy lawn mower over the grass, or calling Grandma with a hairbrush, for instance – is the height of fun for 12- to 21-month-olds as their imaginations begin to blossom.
- Early symbolic play
This type of play, common around the age of 2, creates something out of nothing. Your child might play with a shoebox as if it were a school bus, complete with motor noises, for example, or pretend to eat an invisible object, insisting it's a doughnut.
- Role play
Around 30 to 36 months your little actor will begin taking on new roles. Playing doctor, teacher, or mommy or daddy is common now.
What are the best toys for my child?
Let age be your guide. For instance, 2-month-olds will delight in a wind chime that moves with the breeze, while 15-month-olds need a little more excitement – think pretend cooking in a play kitchen. To get specific suggestions for toys that will make your child's eyes light up and grab his attention, choose his age below:
How can I make the most of my child's playtime?
Try these suggestions:
- Think of playtime as more than toy time. Playing is really any enjoyable activity that involves people, objects, or movement.
Everything from blowing bubbles at each other to singing songs to splashing in the tub to chasing each other around the room qualifies. If you've ever seen a 12-month old enthralled with a cardboard box, you understand how wide the parameters are.
- Get down on the floor with your baby. You are the ultimate plaything, and any activity will seem more fun if your baby can share it with you. Talk to your baby while you play and you'll help boost her language skills.
- Introduce play activities when your baby is happy and rested, suggests Marilyn Segal, a developmental psychologist and author of the Your Child at Play series.
- Stop when your child's had enough. Children have different thresholds for stimulation. When yours seems bored, fussy, or tired, it's time for a break.
Give your child a chance to play alone and with others. Both types of play are beneficial.
- Let your child choose activities and control the direction of his play. You can suggest new things or present new options, but your child should be the boss. After all, play is about fun, and if there's one thing your child is an expert at already, it's having a good time.