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How To Play Right (And How To Play Wrong)

Playtime isn’t just fun and games—but don’t tell your kids that. When babies and children play, they are learning in a way that is fun and interesting for them. Neurons connect, muscles strengthen, and skills develop. But how your child plays is just as important as the act of playing. Playing the right way involves toys and activities that engage your child cognitively and physically.

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Turn Off the Screen

From TVs to tablets to smartphones, it’s tough to keep kids away from screens; babies who can barely sit unassisted yet have mastered the finger-swipe. But playing with these devices benefits you more than your child: Screen games may keep him quiet and still, but does very little for his cognitive, physical, and social development.

Pros: Playing with technology can help a child learn about the world. Children, especially as they age, can read and watch videos about a multitude of subjects, and play games designed to expose them to other cultures, history, maths, and science.

Cons: Staring at screens keeps kids from interacting with the world. Often, children will be entertained solo for hours by a digital device, missing chances for social development that personal interactions promote. Also, in practice, the exposure mentioned above rarely happens; when kids are left to their own devices, they generally pursue only their interests or get caught up in a single game.

Solution: Like most things, playing on smart devices is fine in moderation. Parents should limit screen time to one hour a day, with exceptions for special circumstances, like birthdays or travel. Use screen time for educational purposes, such as reading books on a Kindle, playing educational games on a tablet, or visiting learning websites. And if you’re using screen time as a reward (i.e. If you fold your clothes, you can play online for a half hour), be sure to be consistent.

Get Outdoors

Kids need space. They like to and need to run, jump, bounce, and spin. They also need fresh air and sunlight. All three are commodities in short supply in cities, but (assuming it’s safe) whenever possible seek out outdoor activities for kids.

Pros: Outdoor activities for kids give them the space they need to be physical and develop strong bodies. It also gets them a nice healthy Vitamin D dose from the sun. It also lays the groundwork for a lifelong habit of activity, which is extremely important in today’s sedentary world. There is also more scope for ‘good play’ outdoors, where there are fewer distractions and kids have to rely more on their imagination and creativity to be entertained.

Cons: The only con to playing outdoors is access. There are few parks and playgrounds in cities yet, and certainly not enough to be available to everyone. Plus, air pollution can be a concern.

Solution: You can’t build a park, clean the air, or control the weather. But you can still find outdoor activities for kids. Look into sports leagues or other outdoor group activities. Take a weekend (or a day off) and go to a national park or the beach. The best thing about being outside is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money doing it—treks are fun and cheap, and you only need a couple of buckets to build a sandcastle.

Buy the Right Toys

That flashy, remote-control car may look cool. And that puzzle may reveal a beautiful image. But they have two things in common: they may not be appropriate for your child. Battery-operated toys tend to do the ‘work’ of play for children; rather, they don’t challenge children in any way, and thus don’t help them develop. Instead, buy toys that help your child through each stage of development.

Babies: Sensory toys will be fun and stimulate a baby’s development—colors, movement, and sound are all important in toys. Ideally these attributes would be paired with a sensory element, as babies are also learning general motor skills. If they can reach, grasp, shake, or kick while playing, they’ll be happy and stimulated. Additionally, babies are starting to grasp the concept of cause-and-effect at this age. Give them toys that requires they complete an action (say, winding a handle) to cause something to occur (an animal to pop out). As babies mature, they learn about size, shape and space. Blocks, or any other stackable toy, will be exciting for them.

Toddlers: Children at this age are just starting to engage with the world around them through imitation and testing limits. Games for toddlers that reflect their life – dolls, cars and trucks, plates and cups – help them learn about the world. Toddlers are also very imaginative (in a mundane way) and like to pretend and play dress-up to re-enact daily events.

As their motor skills mature, kids enjoy games for toddlers that allow movement, like tricycles and scooters, and activities that develop fine motor skills, such as scribbling, stacking blocks, stringing beads, and sorting objects. Perhaps the best part about this age is that toddlers are often just as happy with simple household objects as they are with expensive toys. For busy parents, dinner prep can double as playtime by giving your little one vegetables to sort, water to pour, or plastic containers to stack.

Small Children: Small children are learning to socialize and continue to pretend and dress up, but often in collaboration with playmates. They continue developing fine motor skills with manipulative toys like Play-Doh, puzzles, Legos and other construction toys, which also spur their creativity.

Older Children: Strategy games and board games are best for slightly older children, who need opportunities to build their ability to work in a team, problem solve, think critically, and plan ahead. Games like Ludo, Chutes and Ladders, and Twister are appropriate for kids starting around six or seven years old. And for those on the cups of their preteen years, Monopoly, Sequence, and Battleship will entertain and challenge.

But remember: Children are creative and full of curiosity. There may be times when a cardboard box (ahem, time machine, that is) is more interesting to them, than an expensive toy—and that’s more than fine.

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