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Even though playing is definitely fun for our kids, the benefits aren't all fun and games; they're actually quite serious. Play is vital to healthy brain development. Children use play to break down all the information that floods their brains into usable pieces that help them understand their world. For kids, learning is a whole-body experience. They have to touch, feel and try things in order to understand. Play covers all those bases and is integral to higher level thinking.   

In our increasingly over-scheduled lives, it sometimes seems that kids have less and less time to just play. That's why we need to be intentional in our efforts to give kids the opportunity to play. Here's how!

Honor play: Honor and respect play for the power it provides in your child’s life and learning. Understand that it’s not "just" play. Play is the connection of all the learning and experiences into something that is meaningful to a developing brain. Watch your children at play; they have so much to tell us through their imaginations and creative visions.

Provide open-ended toys: These are materials that foster a child's creativity, the items that turn into something different each time your child plays with them. Examples are:

  • dress-up clothes
  • blocks
  • paper and crayons
  • play dough
  • cars and trucks
  • baby dolls
  • sticks, stones, sand and water
  • LEGOs
  • balls
  • recycled materials (such as toilet paper tubes, egg cartons, cups and lids)

Make time to play with your kids: The real power you can give to your children is to be playful with them. This means protecting their play TIME by scheduling healthy chunks of time for free play and protecting it from any life intrusions. Research tells us the young children need 45 minutes to an hour to get deeply engaged in their play. Make sure you regularly schedule that time at least a couple of times a week. Then be intentionally playful in your own interactions with your kids.

  • Make games out of everyday activities like picking up toys, getting coats on and racing to the car.
  • Sing silly songs or rhymes about your child's day, name and favorite activities.
  • Make up funny what-if stories (What if dogs couldn't bark, or if it was never night, ,or if my nose fell off?)

Playing with your young kids in an intentional way will not only help them to develop properly, it will renew your connection with your child, and even help you to de-stress by becoming a kid again and allowing yourself to relax. It's a win-win!

Jeanne Labana, mom of 4 and grandma of 8, has been an educator for over 25 years. She currently teaches parenting classes, including Love and Logic.

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