In April, more than 400 thought leaders, practitioners, researchers, government representatives and social innovators from around the world converged in Billund, Denmark, for the annual LEGO®Idea Conference.  This year’s theme was “Unlocking the Power of Parenting” focusing on ways to harness the power of parenting to support children’s development and learning.

To complement the conference, The Foundation also released an evidence review on the importance of Playful Parenting in the early years. Vice President, Sarah Bouchie, explains, “Playful Parenting in the early child years brings together our understanding of playful experiences that lead to deeper learning. Our hope is that this review of evidence will encourage caregivers, teachers and policymakers alike to utilise learning-through-play activities and help further promote its positive impact on children’s development and learning.” But, just what is ‘playful parenting’ and what can children, and parents gain from it? Why is it so important for all of us to make more time for playtime?

The Art of Play

We are our children’s first playmate and children from birth to age three spend more time at home than at any other age. A crucial, long-lasting bond can be established through playful interactions, laying the foundation for a positive and healthy relationship that can grow throughout their childhood. The potential for children to learn fundamental skills through parent-child play in the early years is vast, with the first three years of a child’s life being a particularly important time for learning and development. The brain develops rapidly in this period of a child’s life, producing more than a million neural connections each second. The experiences and relationships that a child has in this period, along with health and nutrition, have a huge impact on neural development. Given this critical period of development, coupled with young children’s propensity for play between birth and three years of age, the potential for learning through play at this age is huge and exciting. Parent-child play doesn’t require lots of time or expensive toys. High-quality play moments can happen during everyday routines, such as feeding, bathtime and bedtime.

Through smiling and eye contact, talking and singing, imitation and simple games, like “wave bye-bye”, young children can learn important features of social interaction. In addition, playing with common household items – like tin cups, empty containers, and cooking pots can help a child learn about objects’ feel and quality, and what can be done with them. Children should also feel safe in their relationship with their parent or carer in order to form a secure attachment. There is a wealth of evidence which shows that secure attachment and adequate bonding with a parent is important for a child’s emotional wellbeing, including stress and anxiety reduction. This sense of safety and trust can be built through consistent positive interactions, such as play experiences. Play can be a fantastic opportunity for a parent and child to get to know each other’s emotional cues, adding to a feeling of familiarity and warmth.

A parent-child play experience that leads to deeper learning has one or more of the following characteristics:

Joyful: Make eye contact with your baby during play to communicate the joy of the interaction, such as exaggerated smiling and laughing, as well as gestures such as clapping and high-fiving when your child completes a tricky task. Young infants are greatly amused by unexpected events during play, and so you can provide joyful play through building excitement during peek-a-boo or a jack in the box game.

Actively Engaging: Contribute to your child’s absorption in an activity by elaborating on
it and enhancing it through multisensory stimulation.For example, your child is pretending to fly a spaceship to the moon, you could contribute to the story by making “whoosh” sound effects or building on the story by suggesting objects that could also represent the moon (e.g., a toy ball). Maintaining eye contact during play, or physically stimulating your child through movement will enhance the engagement.

Socially interactive: While you can play in parallel alongside your child, it is likely that deeper learning comes from socially interactive parent-child play. During pretend play, take on a character that must negotiate, plan and work together with your child to accomplish something.

Meaningful: Early parent-child play allows children to make sense of their world, by pointing to things in the environment and expressing what they are. If you model how to use a toy telephone, your child is likely to imitate this behaviour within the play activity, serving as practice for real-life actions.

Iterative: Young children love to explore and try things over and over again in play. For example, they will fill a container with small objects and empty them all again in a repeating pattern. To you this may seem like pointless repetition, but toddlers are iterating on this process and experimenting with the physical properties of the objects. Think of iterative play as mini science experiments and support this by encouraging the tweaking and repeating process.

Object play with an adult can harness important cognitive skills in babies, including the understanding of cause-and-effect relationships. It has been found that babies as young as 16-months can infer important features of a toy, for example whether it can play music or not, simply by watching adults play with that same toy first. Research has shown that even very young infants can read their parents’ social cues, and can distinguish between pretend and real acts, such as pretending to drink a cup of tea. This kind of “mind reading” is fundamental to successful social relationships. Researchers have also found that mothers’ responsiveness during a play interaction with their nine and 14-month old babies predicted the timing of children’s early language milestones between nine and 21 months. This suggests that parent-child play can provide an excellent opportunity for parents to stimulate their child’s language development through responsive interactions. And it’s not only our kids who benefit. Parents themselves report that playing with their children makes them feel good. The LEGO Play Well reportshows that nine in 10 parents also say play is fundamental to their own happiness, and makes us feel relaxed, energised and more creative. The same number say play also strengthens family relationships, builds trust and helps them know their children better.

As parents, we wish for a positive and healthy relationship with our children, but how often do we find ourselves spending more time concerned about tidying up or doing the laundry? All the evidence stacks up to tell us that playtime is so much more than simply having fun with our kids, but instead is actually helping them to build the strong foundations they need for life.

Edited excerpt from Playful Parenting In The Early Years by The Lego Foundation. The LEGO Foundation aims to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow; a mission that it shares with the LEGO Group. In collaboration with thought leaders, influencers, educators and parents the LEGO Foundation aims to equip, inspire and activate champions for play. Learn more at LEGOfoundation.com

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