Why Play Is so Important for Your Infant

Play Infant

You might be surprised to visit your pediatrician with your infant and come away with a prescription for play. That’s right, a “doctor’s order” to engage in play with your child. A recent clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) instructs pediatricians to discuss the importance of, and encourage, playtime for all children, and even goes so far as recommending a written prescription for play.

What Do We Mean By Play? And What Are the Benefits of Play?

According to the report, play is defined as an activity that is motivated by the child, involves active engagement (as opposed to passive engagement with a screen), and results in “joyful discovery.” Play should be spontaneous, fun, and voluntary, with no external goals.

This does not mean that play is frivolous. As the report states, play “is brain building.” Anybody who has spent time at the zoo or watching nature videos knows that many species, and not just mammals, engage in play. Play is separated from real-life consequences, so children, like all young animals, use play to learn and practice the skills needed in life.

A variety of animal studies support this theory. Rats who were deprived of play as pups have impaired problem solving abilities as adults and are less socially active. And studies of rats show that play actually causes beneficial structural changes in the brain over time.

In humans, play has been shown to provide benefits to children in many areas, including language, math skills, peer relations, executive function (the process of learning rather than the content of what is being learned), and even physical health.

In one study, preschool children who were given blocks to play with under minimal adult supervision showed improvements in language acquisition at a 6-month follow-up. A trial of randomized physical play in 7- to 9-year-olds showed not only increased fitness, but better cognitive flexibility and attention. Furthermore, preschool children with disruptive behavior played 1:1 with a teacher over the course of a year in another study, and they demonstrated reduced salivary cortisol stress levels and improved behavior compared to a control group. In Jamaica, a study of toddlers with growth retardation had weekly play sessions for 2 years and were followed to adulthood, and showed higher educational attainment, less depression and less violent behavior  And multiple other studies have shown similar benefits, along with many others.

Barriers to Play

One reason for the report’s release now is that there is evidence that children in this generation are playing less than previous generations. The biggest barrier is the increased emphasis on academic achievement in school, especially pre-school. This increased emphasis on academic results, especially in those early years, means less time for unstructured free play.

Another barrier to free play is an over-reliance on electronic gadgets that many parents think are “educational” or helpful for their child’s development. But as the authors of the AAP report point out, media of all sorts “encourages passivity and the consumption of others’ creativity rather than active learning and socially interactive play.” Many studies have shown that preschoolers playing with blocks independently develop better language and cognitive skill than their peers watching videos, even “educational” videos such as Baby Einstein.

Play that is too structured is also a barrier to optimum development. There is a societal pressure for many parents to enroll their small children in specialized classes, such as music or art classes. While these can promote the development of special skills along with socialization, an over-reliance on these classes reduces the time for free play when a child can experiment and discover on her own.

For some, unsafe neighborhoods or lack of safe play spaces outdoors means less time for children to play outside. This is a real problem in certain neighborhoods, and one the authors of the report note is difficult to remedy.

What Can Parents Do?

Fortunately, there’s a lot that parents can do to foster appropriate play in their children. For those of you with infants, here are some tips, broken down by age group.

0-6 months

  • Show your baby interesting objects (brightly colored toy, mobile that moves or makes noise/plays music, etc.).
  • Talk frequently to your baby, and respond when she coos or babbles: this back and forth (mimicking a conversation) is critical in helping your infant develop her language skills.
  • Place your baby in different positions so she can see the world from different vantage points.
  • Let your baby bring safe objects to her mouth to explore new and different textures.
  • Vary your facial expressions and gestures so that your baby can imitate them.

7-12 months

  • Place a mirror by your baby so she can see her face.
  • Allow your infant to crawl and explore safe spaces in your home.
  • Place your baby in different positions, such as her tummy, on her side, etc.
  • Play peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek (with a towel or your hands).
  • Give your baby chances to learn that her actions have consequences: have her drop a toy to the ground, have her hit a ball that makes noise or a bell that rings.
  • Put toys in her reach so she can play with them or mouth them.

You will notice that none of the above requires expensive equipment. Parents are bombarded with marketing that tries to convince them to buy the latest “educational” gadgets, often at a steep price. But the best toys for your child’s development are the simple things, like blocks, a space to explore, small toys, and yourself.

So do your child and yourself a favor: take time to play with your infant. You’ll make her smarter, calmer, more resilient, and much happier.

Ruben Rucoba
Dr. Rucoba has over 25 years of experience as a primary care pediatrician after completing medical school at the University of California, San Francisco. His clinical areas of expertise include caring for children with special health care needs and assisting families with international adoption. He has been a freelance medical writer since 2010, writing for health websites, continuing medical education providers, and various print outlets. He currently works at Wheaton Pediatrics in the suburbs of Chicago, where he lives with his wife and four daughters, including a set of twins.

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