A look at some of the important life lessons learned through play.

By Lexicon Consulting, Inc.
June 11, 2015

Playtime is more than fun and games--it's also functional, especially when it comes to your little one's brain. Babies are born with more than 100 billion brain cells, and playtime helps link these cells, forming connections that impact thinking, emotion, and behavior.

"The brain is user-dependant," says Holly Engel-Smothers, co-author of Boosting Your Baby's Brainpower and a contributing author to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. "It has to be used and stimulated in order for it to grow."

Banging on pots and pans, playing house, and reading all boost brain growth. Enrich your child's educational experience as she develops--and keep the wheels in her head turning.

How the Brain Grows through Play

Babies. Peek-a-boo! Playing is how babies absorb the new world around them and see what they can do with their bodies to make something happen. And few things fascinate them quite like you. "Baby's favorite plaything is the parent," Engel-Smothers says. "This attachment is absolutely vital for any other milestones to be reached."

Now is the time to encourage a love of reading; it provides the building blocks for visual, speech, and language development. Cuddle up with books containing large, colorful pictures and have fun by getting into character. Simple activities such as shaking a rattle or filling a bucket with blocks teach cause and effect and concepts like "in and out," respectively, while improving motor skills.

Play is a pleasant form of work for babies. "They are motivated to work hard to solve problems," says Linda Acredolo, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and co-author of Baby Minds: Brain-Building Games Your Baby Will Love. "They like to figure things out."

Toddlers. When he pushes rubber ducky under bath water to watch it pop back up and throws snacks from his high chair to see them fall, your tot is learning how objects around him work and function. "They learn from each of these experiments," Acredolo says. Stacking rings, small puzzles, and pop-up toys encourage problem solving at this age. "They enjoy the sense of accomplishment," she continues.

Once they've mastered manipulative play--anything that uses hands, muscles, and eyes--toddlers incorporate pretend play, using their vivid imaginations to understand symbols. For instance, a doll symbolizes a baby and a toy truck symbolizes a real truck. Join in to promote language development. "When parents play pretend with children, they are supporting the child with words," Acredolo says.

Preschoolers. At this stage, your role-playing child and her peers are setting up a visit at the doctor's office as they take the language and motor skills they've already learned to the next level. "Preschool play facilitates social relationships and growth," Engel-Smothers says.

Imaginative play promotes planning, problem solving, and compromise as they figure out, for instance, who plays the doctor, nurse, and patient. Plus, "parents can foster more abstract play," Acredolo says. For example, encourage your preschooler to pretend a block of wood is a car.

Enhance the Educational Benefits of Play

Create a positive environment. Latch the medicine cabinet, cover electrical outlets, and put breakables up high to let your little one safely explore her world. This means you spend less time saying "no" and more time saying "yes," Engel-Smothers says. "If a child keeps getting told 'no,' she'll stop exploring and problem solving," she says.

Make activities more memorable. Plopping your babe in front of an educational TV program or computer game isn't as intellectually stimulating as it may seem. To participate in the experience and engage your little one, repeat what is going on in the show and ask questions. "This makes the experience so much more meaningful," Engel-Smothers says.

Know when to stop. Too much play can do more harm than good. "Everyone's brain needs a break," Engel-Smothers says. "If your child is overstressed, there is no time for her brain to make connections and create more growth." Take a breather if your little one avoids your gaze and instead fidgets with his fingers and toes, or if he bursts into tears.

Copyright © 2009 Meredith Corporation.