It is hardly surprising that during the first few years of life, a human goes through the most rapid period of development they will experience in the course of their life. A baby goes from being a helpless newborn to a talking, walking toddler in a few months.
Parents who are anxious to ensure that their child’s development is supported as much as possible will be interested to learn that one of the best ways of doing this is by encouraging your child to play.
Although there are many expensive products and toys on the market which claim to educate and develop a child’s brain and understanding, some of the best ways of playing are cheap and do not involve any special equipment.
The scientific evidence
An extensive study by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2007 concluded that there was a strong link between playing and brain development. At age 5, children who had played regularly with parents scored higher on IQ tests than children who had not.
The UK government takes play so seriously that a Literacy Trust has been set up with the sole aim of encouraging parents to play with their babies and toddlers with the aim of improving speech and language skills.
Babies go through a steep learning curve when it comes to movement, with a progression from sitting to crawling then walking and running. Some toddlers are quicker to develop these skills than others and there is lots that a parent can do to help their child. Being active is important as it builds good habits which should last a lifetime.
Walks in the park encourage the child to keep moving, and as they get older they can be encouraged to hop, jump or skip. None of this needs special equipment, just interaction between child and parent. Other skills such as throwing and catching a ball can help the child develop hand to eye coordination.
Babies start babbling from an early age and parents can easily encourage speech by talking and singing with their children. Music and singing classes have become popular, but encouraging your child by singing nursery rhymes to them and playing clapping games can help them identify patterns in speech and language. As they get older, games like I Spy can help with early reading skills and identification of different letters of the alphabet.
The main issue with commercial toys is that they are only designed to be played with in a way that is specified by the manufacturer. In order to encourage your child to use their imagination, allow them to make dens, dress up or play make believe games with figures or animals. Parents can assist the play by telling stories about what the figures are doing, or asking the child questions about what they are doing.
Best games for babies
When playing with babies, remember they have a very short attention span and will get bored quickly. Trying to keep them engaged when they have lost interest is almost impossible.
- Singing. Sing to your baby, sing along with the radio, or teach them songs with actions. Babies love the repetition and it really doesn’t matter how good your singing voice is.
- Shakers and rattlers. Babies love things which make a noise. Fill empty plastic bottles with things like rice, lentils, pasta or even water, then seal them up well. Babies will love the different sounds which the different materials make.
- Household utensils. Babies find everything interesting, and there is no harm letting them play with wooden spoons, pots, pans or colourful items of clothing.
- Bubbles. Kids of all ages love bubbles and babies are fascinated by them. Trying to catch bubbles will also develop coordination.
- Balls. Older babies will love rolling a ball backwards and forwards on the floor, or watching a parent throw it in the air. This is again teaching them physical skills.
Best games for toddlers
Once children are walking and active, the world of play opens up completely and there is far more that they can experience and do.
- Books. It’s never too early to introduce your child to books, and the brighter the colours and pictures the better. Simple stories and picture books are best and regular reading with a child can encourage a love of books which lasts a lifetime.
- I spy. Older children love playing I spy and it is a great way of improving vocabulary. For younger children, start with “I spy something coloured…” rather than using letters.
- Dressing up. Toddlers love bright clothes and pretend play. Encourage a child to dress up and then act out the character.
- Sorting. Getting a child to sort out objects into sizes or colours or shapes will not only develop their physical coordination, it will also help develop their memory and language abilities.
- Playdough. Using either shop bought or homemade playdough can help a child be both more creative and imaginative in their play. Parents find it is good fun too!