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Decode your child's play

Based out of Dallas, Texas, Mary McCoy is a writer and social worker for disenfranchised women and children. She's a single mom, lover of Texas barbecue, and a die-hard fan of yoga

what lies behind your child's play world

Your child's play is more than just a way to pass the time. Find out more about how play can help develop physical, emotional, language and social skills your little one will use for the rest of her life.
Baby playing

Children are voracious learners. Every waking moment — especially during their first few years of life — children absorb the world around them, integrate their findings, and practice and master new skills at an astounding rate.

We've zeroed in on the infant and toddler phases of development because there are so many fun activities to enjoy together as your child discovers her world.

Repeating exciting behaviors: 4 – 8 months

Until your child turns about 4 months old, he spends most of his time on his back or belly, and most of his limb movements are random kicks and punches. But somewhere between 4 and 8 months of age, your little one will learn to sit. Sitting opens up a whole new learning environment for babies. Suddenly, even if they still retain some random kicking and punching movements, babies begin to move with intention. And delightfully, they learn that their intentional movements impact their environment. When they bat a dangling toy, it swings — and when they pull the dog's tail, it snorts. The control your baby has over his environment encourages him to imitate others, and also helps him understand that he is his own person.

Ideas for fostering your child's growth in this phase of play:

  • If you don't already have a crib mobile, purchase one so your baby can practice reaching and grabbing for the dangling pieces.
  • Utilize a wide variety of handheld rattles, clappers and bells for your baby, to help him practice controlling his movements and the sounds his movements make.

First attempts at problem solving: 8 – 14 months

Between the ages of 8 and 14 months, a great deal of your child's play will revolve around problem solving. For instance, a baby as young as 8 months will begin to learn that she can move a blanket that is covering a toy so she can play with the toy. Babies just a few months older begin to think more abstractly as they problem solve. Instead of just moving a blanket to find a toy through trial and error, they can watch a caregiver move a blanket to find a toy, and then think to themselves, "I wonder what I will find under this other blanket if I move it." Naturally, this phase of development is full of curiosity, and you can boost your baby's problem-solving skills by giving her new wonders to discover.

You can encourage her problem-solving skills by:

  • Purchasing nesting cups for your child. Nesting cups allow her to practice stacking and grasping, while also teaching her to solve how to nestle the cups within one another.
  • Playing with puzzles. She may feel frustrated by the puzzle, but it is teaching her to keep working with the pieces until she can find a good solution.

Discovering object permanence: 14 – 18 months

Children begin working towards understanding object permanence from the time they are born. But it's not until your baby reaches 14 months that she'll really begin to understand object permanence — namely, that an object continues to exist even if she can't see it anymore. At around 14 months, your little one will really begin to enjoy playing hide-and-seek with you, and search-and-find games will be even more fun to play.

How to enjoy the new play world of object permanence with your child:

  • Play hide-and-seek! She'll enjoy finding her hidden mommy for hours.
  • Place toys in the pots and pans she is already pilfering through — she'll learn that there are fun surprises if she just keeps working to find them.

Enjoying make-believe play: 18 – 24 months

Things grow really exciting by the time children reach 18 months of age. Between 18 months and 2 years of age, your child will begin to engage in make-believe play. Children who are encouraged to participate in make-believe play, and go on to enjoy this play, show benefits in memory, attention, logic, language and literacy, imagination and empathy. They not only imitate their caregivers — they actually infer the feelings and roles of the people around them. Make-believe play is the building block for your child's language and interpersonal skills.

Want to enhance your child's make-believe play? Try these ideas:

  • Elaborate on what he is doing without directing his play. If his stuffed elephant is riding on his train set, ask where the elephant is going for the day. This will allow him to put into words what his plans are and why he thinks the way he does.
  • Offer opportunities for your child to interact with a variety of children, and guide him calmly through conflicts when they inevitably arise.

More about play-time

The importance of play
Help your kids play independently
4 Ways to foster imaginative play

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