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Parenting - The importance of play for a child's development

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Grainne will speak about the importance of playing for your child's development. She'll speak about how a child begins to play and the importance of spontaneity in playing with your child.

Grainne Ryan, Public Health Nurse

Almost from birth, children play. When a baby shakes a rattle or drops toys from the pram, she is not just having fun, she is learning about gravity, cause and effect, and if mum picks up the toy over and over again, she learns about turn-taking and communication.

Play is partly about modelling adult behaviour and learning about the world, but it is also about letting off steam and having fun, and imaginative play is vital for language and intellectual development. In addition, children often express worries and work through problems or anxieties in their play.

For me, one of the most important things about play is that it is spontaneous, voluntary, and meant to be fun. Children play at whatever takes their fancy and if the parent says something like "I'm only going to play for five minutes," you are actually losing all that spontaneity and therefore play will feel artificial.

. Initially, her play will be on her own.
. She will progress to watching older children (spectator play).
. After some time spent in other children's company, you may notice parallel play -- two children doing the same thing side by side.
. Associative play is where they are doing things which relate to each other, close to other children, but without communication.
. Eventually, they will work towards co-operative play; play now can be richer and more imaginative.

During the first year of life, most of her play will be about simply holding objects and experiencing them through all the senses.
Old-fashioned games like 'round and round the garden', or 'pat a cake' are great, as your child is involved in directing the action, but also the verbal play is teaching the rhythms and turn-taking of conversation.

Symbolic play is next. It usually starts fairly simply, acting out everyday events, like driving cars, shopping and using toys and dolls.

Encouraging play in your toddler is not about filling your house with expensive toys. The more flexible the object, the more your toddler will explore it, use it, and let her imagination run.

Parents who encourage their children to play by taking it seriously, being excited about their discoveries, praising their achievements, being patient and encouraging, and not always expecting a predictable outcome, find that their children become more skillful players.

To get the most of playing with your toddler
. Be spontaneous -- don't worry about what you are going to do together, just see what happens.
. Make play a regular and natural part of the day. When cooking, allow more time so your toddler can help.
. When spring cleaning, keep a box of clothes for dressing up -- children love this.

Physical play
Toddlers need to develop balance, coordination, gross motor skills and fine motor skills. Toddlers use play in order to practise and develop these.


Your toddler needs to let off steam every day. Having time for spontaneous physical play enhances gross motor skills and balance, all of which are important for later co-coordinating skills like reading and writing.


Take your toddler to the park. You could bring her ride-on toy and let her whizz around. Combine this with a session feeding the ducks. If it is raining, take your toddler to the swimming pool or soft-play leisure centre.


Your toddler develops fine motor skills through exploratory and manipulative play. You can help by providing stacking objects like plastic cups, wooden jigsaws and everyday household objects.
When your child starts mixing with other children at playschool, she will start to encounter rough and tumble play. This type of play is natural and is about interacting with other children. It is not a sign of aggression.

Creative play
Many of us feel uncomfortable about encouraging creativity in our children. First, there is the mess -- paint marks on the wall, sand on the floor -- all that commotion for something your toddler may lose interest in after a few minutes.


Creative play provides several vital developmental functions all at once, fine motor skills, a sense of exploration and trying out the physical properties of different materials. Creativity will encourage your child to become a person who is good at thinking of simple yet original solutions.

Your reaction to your child's efforts will affect her creative play. Be positive -- there is no right or wrong, but you can make suggestions.


Play dough is also great, as is water play. This can happen in a washing-up bowl or sink. Give your toddler various containers; add some washing-up liquid for some fun!

Imaginative play
Parents can influence children to become imaginative players, encouraging toddlers to play at games such as tea parties and suggesting imaginative situations to pre-schoolers. Mothers who actually join in with symbolic play rather than just making suggestions have the biggest effect on their children's play.


Try to provide a wide range of symbolic toys: cups and saucers, dolls or teddies, and a good dressing-up box. You don't need to spend a lot of money: a shoe box and a tea towel make a great crib for a doll.

If your toddler is slow to speak, imaginative play can really help progress language. Suggesting simple tasks, like putting teddy to bed and doing a running commentary on what you are both doing will encourage language development.

Language play
A major part of language development comes through playing with words: singing, making up rhymes and action rhymes/songs.
Being able to understand stories and tell them to others depends on how familiar they are with storytelling.

Reading stories to children has been shown to help them shape ideas, explore lines of thought and develop the ability to see the world from someone else's viewpoint.


Experiments have found a link between how well children have interactive stories with their mothers and their own control of their behaviour and emotions.


Action songs are great. Buy a traditional nursery rhyme book. During the early years, your toddler is at her most receptive. Establishing that books are interesting and entertaining is best done now, so that she's more likely to want to learn to read when she's older.


Television is fine once you limit viewing to around 30 minutes per day. Children can learn to ignore speech as they concentrate on the visual. Learning to speak involves active two-way communication, which is not possible with the television.

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