Something as simple as encouraging your child to craft stories on the fly about the tiny family in their dollhouse or create a town with wooden blocks – and describe what it would be like to live there – can have a markedly positive effect on their cerebral development.
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The cognitive benefits of structured play in the early years are backed up by studies showing that stimulating toys boost your child’s brainpower, and unstructured play situations deliver a similar benefit. Crucial cerebral developments of the right side of the brain rest on children engaging in both types early on, spurring empathy, intuition, imagination and creativity. Indeed, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has taken a firm stand on the importance of play, highlighted by its book, “Retro Toddler,” which lists more than 100 old-school activities to boost physical and intellectual development. Children that age love stacking blocks, sorting colored shapes and stringing beads, and these are all activities that develop their thinking skills.
Smart play doesn’t require a big budget, either. It’s more an attitude. It can take place virtually anywhere, whether you’re waiting for a dentist appointment or to be served at a restaurant. In those scenarios you can challenge your child to a game of tic-tac-toe drawn on the back of a menu, ask “what-if” questions or play “I Spy with My Little Eye.”
Open-ended activities — rather than toys and games that can only be used in one way and lead children to play in specific, scripted fashions — spur learning and imagination. So find outlets for your children to rip, color, play tag, rock out to music, laugh and giggle.
Make “true toys” such as blocks and dolls available, which allow children to use their imagination. Construct a fort with chairs, sheets and pillows on a rainy day. Sing fun songs and jump rope chants to stimulate learning through rhyming and memorization. Alternatively, seek out games that teach critical thinking skills, like checkers or chess or bridge. Activities like drawing and building with construction sets cultivate creativity. As children age, keep them engaged with fun activities that encourage cerebral growth, including challenging tangrams, sequencing puzzles, Rubik’s Cube-type or other 3-D challenges, single player logic games, crosswords, word searches, creative writing, puppets and role-playing.
Brain development continues from birth through the teenage years; learning and cognitive developmental stages require stimulation and challenges to exercise that growth. For that reason, the AAP recommends little to no screen time for infants and toddlers, stressing the importance of physical play and human interaction. But, for older children, scientists have found that there can be actual benefits to these diversions. With an eye to limiting time spent with screens, studies show that even action games can improve players’ vision, attention, certain aspects of cognition and multitasking. Building games like Minecraft and ROBLOX challenge players to construct whole worlds. And puzzle games provoke critical thinking about patterns and strategy. Purists may eschew video games altogether but used in moderation they can remain a part of your child’s brain-building toolbox.
Get messy – and join in
Don’t rule out stomping in puddles as being beneficial to your child’s learning. Tactile, hands-on free play, like digging in the sand at the beach versus the more structured environment of a gymnastics class, provides different brain-boosting gains. And if your kid is splashing around with a pal or two, that’s even better.
Recent studies suggest that actively playing with other children helps kids strengthen their thinking skills too, as well as better process the information they’re absorbing daily. Social and emotional competence developed through play also increases cognitive development.
Parents advocating for recess have scientific backing to show that more play boosts learning. Those bucking against the push to have kids sit and learn more subjects in structured environments for extended hours intuitively know the benefits of free play and physical movement. Such activities allow a child’s mind to roam and sharpens their negotiation skills, and the break from sit-down learning actually allows for focus once they’re back in class. Even savvy educators, who understand that children are drawn to play for learning, are hopping on a trend to gamify classroom activities, couching studies as a series of challenges to conquer.
Children learn in many ways, and no matter their ages or interests, parents can help keep them in a near-constant state of get-smartitude.
Kathleen Dexter, M.S.W., is a contract administrator for The Children’s Trust, and a licensed clinical social worker with extensive experience in the design and implementation of child and family services programs. For more information, visit thechildrenstrust.org.