At dinnertime, your 6-month-old prefers grabbing the spoon to eating. When you unload the dishwasher, your 20-month-old wants to put the silverware away. In both situations, your child is pursuing what he does best: playing. Play is monumentally important to all aspects of child development—it's how children of all ages learn. "I always tell parents, if you could see inside your child's brain you'd notice that every time he plays, connections are being made," says Roni Leiderman, Ph.D., coauthor of Gymboree Play and Learn: 1001 Fun Activities for Your Baby and Child.
Place your newborn in his crib, and he'll be fascinated by the motion and colors of the mobile dangling above him. He can't reach out and grab the mobile (yet), but he can use his senses to study it. Sound, sight, taste, touch, and smell will be the tools he uses to figure out the world. Indeed, for the first year, most play is sensory driven. If it's within his reach, he'll grab for it. Once it's in his hand, he'll shake it to see if it makes a noise, put it into his mouth to taste it, or rub it to see what it feels like.
To get a picture of the world from a baby's point of view, imagine how you feel when the dessert cart comes by after dinner—you want to taste everything in sight, even though you know that the chocolate will be sweet and the Key lime pie will be tart. Babies have no reference point. Their environment is a smorgasbord ripe for discovery and full of surprises—such as the differences in taste and texture among a sock, a plastic ball, and a chopped-up banana.
As babies approach their first birthday, brain development and advances in motor skills (especially with their hands) fuel the next level of play. The senses are still important, of course. But instead of just wanting to know How does it feel, sound, and taste? They also want to know What happens if I drop it? What reaction will I get? If I do the same thing twice, will the exact same thing happen again? As your baby experiments with banging, throwing, and dropping, she's absorbing lessons in cause and effect. When she does something like knock over a tower of blocks she's just built, this is an important "aha!" moment. She realizes she can make things happen, and that delivers a strong message of empowerment and independence. For a child who has spent most of her life being carried around and told where she's going to sit and when she's going to nap, this is incredibly exciting. Suddenly, she has some control over her environment. She can choose where things will go. And she will conduct the same experiments over and over again. "Repetition gives children an opportunity to practice, and every time they do something they get better at it," says Betty Bordner, early childhood educator at the Strong National Museum of Play, in Rochester, New York.
Playing with balls and blocks teaches your child about how the world works. But a toddler's interests will go beyond putting toys (and everything else he can get his hands on) through their paces. When he takes your cell phone and jabbers away (just like you do!), you'll know his play has reached a new level—taking on certain tasks and roles of the important people in his life. Between 18 months and 3 years, pretend play is mostly about imitating, whether kids are mimicking parents in their daily routines or characters and plotlines they see on TV shows. But eventually, the make-believe plots will come from the kids' imagination, accompanied by improvised props and costumes. And when your child substitutes a banana for a phone (usually between ages 2 and 3), you'll know he's capable of symbolic thinking. Why is this so important? It means he's developing the ability to think abstractly, laying the groundwork for reading, math, problem-solving, and other skills that are so important for success in school and beyond.
Before age 2, your child might only be interested in pulling toys out of the hands of her peers. But a change is coming, Leiderman says. At age 2, "they are flirting with the idea of interacting with other children. They'll giggle over the same kinds of things. One child will be clapping, and another child will start to clap." This modeling then evolves, around age 3, into more sophisticated play. Kids become much better talkers in their third year, which opens up their social life. Instead of playing side by side, they may play together. Their fantasy play becomes richer, and they take on and assign roles, such as: "It's my turn to pour the tea. You serve the cookies." Agreeing on a game, taking turns, and working out conflicts becomes possible in the preschool years -- though kids will still need help from adults when communication breaks down. And don't worry if there are a lot of arguments or the kids are unable to share. Learning to play cooperatively takes time and practice!
So the next time you see your toddler squishing Play-Doh and then throwing it across the room, don't think, What a mess! Instead, be proud of the fact that he is hard at work, experimenting with cause and effect, and making sense of the diverse world around him.
The next time you're feeling overwhelmed at the toy store, remember this advice from Stevanne Auerbach, Ph.D., author of Smart Play Smart Toys: How to Raise a Child with a High PQ. [play quotient]