Play is the most powerful tool parents have at their disposal for nurturing their children’s growth. It is the simplest way they can encourage almost every facet of development. With that being said, play needs to be age-appropriate and safe.  Most importantly, parents need to play too.

Perhaps the most important part of play is parent/child conversations.  When children are young, parents are their narrators. As they get older, parents help expand their language and build vocabulary. While the type of toys they are playing with are equally important; parents words and explanations give rhyme and reason to what children are encountering through play.

If a child is age birth to nine months, the most appropriate toys are bright and colorful, make noises, have different textures and don’t present a choking hazard. A popular toy that meets most of this criterion is a rattle.

An example of appropriate rattle play with a child, birth to nine-months of age:

While on the floor with a child, a parent should shake the rattle and speak to the child at the same time, using words like, “shake, shake.” A parent should move the rattle from left to right and describe the movement using words like, “zoom to the right, zoom to the left.” It is important to smile and laugh. Positive facial features make the interaction all the more enjoyable for the child and helps build self-confidence. The movement and sound of the rattle helps with cause and effect and hand-eye coordination. A parent’s narration of the events helps build the child’s vocabulary and object recognition.

When a child reaches the age of 9 to 18 months, the concept of language remains the same, but the toys are a bit different. A child of this age may respond best to toys like picture books made of a sturdy material, balls (not made of foam), plastic play food, plastic play tools, toys that can be pushed or pulled, shape sorters, and simple puzzles (3-5 pieces). These types of toys are made for this age range, but children will still need support to manipulate toys unassisted.

An example of appropriate play with a child, 9 to 18 months of age:

A parent can watch and read the child’s facial features to gauge frustration level when playing with such toys. When the child begins to get frustrated, a parent can offer hand over hand assistance and describe the action while doing it. When a child is frustrated with a shape sorter, the conversation may go as follows: “Oh no the square doesn’t fit in the star! Let’s try this one.”  A parent can then guide the child’s hand with the shape in it to the square outline and say things like,  “Turn it, turn it, it fits!   We did it!” A parent should always use a soft voice and smile. Positive intonation and facial features will enhance a child’s self-confidence and encourage him/her to keep trying.

Children will be the facilitators of their play throughout childhood.  They will have preferences for different toys, but when they reach 18 to 36 months; their imaginations will really start to take shape. At this age, children enjoy more hands on toys like play dough, crayons, paints, dress-up clothes, dolls, action figures, and homemade items for dress up. At this age, children also like to engage in make believe play. When this type of play is going on, a parent’s role is to help a child figure it all out and ask questions.

An example of appropriate play with a child, 18 to 36 months of age:

If a child wants to pretend he/she is a cow, a parent would first ask what cows look like. Then a parent would help the child find items around the house that could be used to make a cow costume. A parent would then ask questions like, “Where does a cow live?  What does it eat?” It is important for parents to use questions as a guide and not give answers.

No matter what the age or toys, the most important things for a parent to remember are to join in, have fun and communicate. A parent’s presence in his/her child’s play can make a world of difference in learning and development. After all play is the most powerful (and fun) tool a parent can use.  What is your favorite part about playtime with your child?

Denise Del Vecchio is a Diagnostic Special Education Teacher who works in the community to evaluate infants and young children to determine if they qualify for Birth-to-Three services. 

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