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IMAGE A child's development should be an enjoyable experience for both parent and child. You may be surprised at the variety of everyday play activities that provide valuable, lasting learning experiences.

The Critical Role of Play

Playing is the best way to get your child off to a good start. It is the most important way to promote growth and development. Play helps strengthen fine and gross motor skills, eye-hand coordination, and problem solving abilities.

Just as an adult needs the proper tools and environment to do a job, a child needs the appropriate tools and environment to encourage independent play. This does not mean they need an elaborate playroom filled with the latest educational toys. It is far more important that they have a play area that is safe, open, and filled with items that they can touch and manipulate.

Learning Opportunities and Everyday Situations

Structured learning is an important and necessary part of a child's life. In fact, most children will experience at least 13 years of formal education in which they will listen to instruction, write papers, take tests, give reports, and complete assignments. Therefore, take advantage of their early years to get them excited about the process of learning. The attitude children have about learning will ultimately influence their future success much more than the school they attend and the special programs in which they are involved.

Play is all about your child exploring the big, new world. You can even use something as ordinary as a laundry basket to teach some basic concepts. Jenna is two years old and loves to climb in and out of the laundry basket. While her mother sorts the laundry, she talks to Jenna about concepts like in and out, top and bottom, under and over. As a result, Jenna has learned to say these words and use them appropriately.

Communication is important. Jenna's mother has used an ordinary and necessary activity to expand Jenna's vocabulary and promote gross motor development. In the meantime, Jenna is having fun being a child. As Jenna gets older, her mother could ask her questions such as "Why does the basket tip over when you lean on one side?" or "How many people do you think could fit in that basket?" These types of questions encourage children to think in terms of solving problems.

An Enthusiasm for Learning

Busy family schedules can often interfere with a child's valuable playtime. Although learning can still occur in the car, at the grocery store, and waiting in line at the mall, this needs to be balanced with larger blocks of time to engage in creative and imaginary play.

Learning should be fun. Attitudes about learning usually reflect personal experiences in school. Karen has taught kindergarten for the past 16 years. "I love working with five- and six-year-olds because they are so excited about learning. They are eager to try new things, they are not inhibited by what they cannot do, and they love the adventure of a new experience. I wish children could keep this enthusiasm for learning, but something happens along the way."

Children who view learning as a positive experience will be more apt to take advantage of educational opportunities. The best way to prolong your child's excitement for learning is to make learning fun. It is a lot more fun for children to learn their letters by playing "Name That Letter" while riding in the car, than reviewing alphabet flash cards for 10 minutes every day. As more learning is incorporated into the child's play, the more likely they will view learning as a positive experience.

Play can also help with motor development. Here are some ideas to help your child master the basics.

Gross Motor Development

Gross motor development involves improvement of skills utilizing the large muscles. Activities such as running, jumping, throwing, skipping, and riding a bike promote gross motor development. Improved coordination and body control is the focus as a child's body becomes larger and stronger.

You don't have to wait long to start developing gross motor skills. Infants do this by lifting their heads, rolling over, and learning to crawl.

Toddlers can improve balancing skills by walking along a thin strip of concrete along the driveway. Make a game of cleaning up bedrooms by having your child toss laundry into a basket. Give lots of praise for completed baskets.

Get your preschooler to balance on one foot for as long as possible. You can do this anywhere, even line at the store. If you're out for a walk, encourage galloping, skipping, running, and jumping.

As your child gets older you can make games more challenging. Consider setting up an obstacle course where your child can maneuver a bike in and around objects. You can even let your child dig holes in the back yard or at the beach.

Fine Motor Development

Fine motor development involves improving skills that use the small muscles. Activities such as grasping, drawing, cutting, gluing, manipulating, and pointing promotes fine motor development. Improved eye-hand coordination becomes more refined as the child gains more control of their small muscles.

Infants can learn to hold small blocks in their hands, or use plastic bowls as play toys. Help your infant use their fingers to point at objects.

Toddlers can put pea-sized drops of toothpaste on their toothbrush. Allow your child to start using a fork and spoon at mealtime. You can start making art projects together by allowing your child to cut scrap paper with safe scissors.

Preschoolers should be learning how to dress. They can master the fine art of snaps and buttons on clothes. Play a balloon game to see who can keep the balloon in the air the longest. This helps develop hand-eye coordination. Art projects can be ramped up by letting your child use crayons or safe markers to draw and color.

As your child gets older, increase their responsibilities by allowing them to set the table for dinner. If you are feeling rushed or need a few minutes to get something done, give your child a puzzle to work on.

  • BAM: Body and Mind

    http://www.bam.gov

  • The President's Challenge

    http://www.presidentschallenge.org

  • Canadian Medical Association

    http://www.cma.ca

  • Health Canada

    http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca

  • Babies and toddlers should learn from play, not screens. American Academy of Pediatrics Healthy Children website. Available at: http://www.healthychildren.org/English/news/Pages/Babies-and-Toddlers-Should-Learn-from-Play-Not-Screens.aspx. Updated October 18, 2011. Accessed October 22, 2013.

  • Developmental milestones. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us. Updated April 8, 2013. Accessed October 22, 2013.

  • Play time supports cognitive and social development that lasts into adulthood. The Urban Child Institute. Available at: http://www.urbanchildinstitute.org/articles/research-to-policy/research/play-time-supports-cognitive-and-social-development-that-lasts. Accessed October 22, 2013.

  • Toddler growth & development. American Academy of Pediatrics Healthy Children website. Available at: http://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/toddler/Pages/default.aspx. Accessed October 22, 2013.