Why is Play important during the first year of life?

Why is Play important during the first year of life?

Children, and sometimes even adults, learn best when they are having fun. Play is more than an exercise for motor skills. Play enhances a young child’s cognitive and social skills as well as a suitable outlet for emotions. Play is an important component to overall development and that is a fact. 

The Benefits of Play 

Any unstructured activity that has no definite rules can be considered play. It is really all about having fun! But more than sheer enjoyment, a child at play is reaping benefits as she interacts with the people and materials around her. 

Social and emotional development

Parents are the baby’s first playmates. Playing together is a healthy way for the family to bond as these moments foster uninterrupted interaction. The way the parents will hold and cuddle and talk to the child can set the tone for their relationship. This is true even for infants who are only beginning to make sense of their environment. 

The sound of a familiar voice is reassuring for a growing child. Make sure to talk and even sing to your little one as you play with her. This provides additional security where the child can thrive as she navigates her surroundings.

Cognitive development

The first year of life is a time for rapid brain development and these can be maximized through play. As children grow and develop, they learn many new things and strive to solve simple problems that they encounter. 

Just watch an infant at play and see how she figures out cause and effects. She learns to use her body to make things happen. One example would be when she waves her arms and hits the mobile. She eventually realizes how her movements caused the mobile to also move. It really is fun to witness your infant acquire and sharpen skills. 

Infants are also learning to follow familiar faces and objects with their eyes. At about 3 to 4 months old, you can already elicit a huge smile from your little one when you play peek-a-boo. This teaches her the concept of object permanence - that things still exist even when she doesn’t see them.

Physical Development 

An infant is learning to focus her vision, reach out and grasp while exploring the materials around her. These are just some of the developmental milestones to watch out for during the first year of life. And what better way to enhance these skills than through play! Parents can even use household items and turn them into play things. 

A child who is lying flat on his back might begin to observe any moving object in front of her. This could range from a mobile to a curtain being blown by the wind. This activity not only helps her focus her vision, she will also practice moving her head from one direction to another. 

Older infants also benefit from tummy time. This strengthens their upper body and neck muscles. For children who are at least six months old, this is the beginning of crawling that may be encouraged by letting them reach for a toy in front of them. Just make sure to child proof your surroundings so your baby can explore in safety.

The Stages of Play

The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget once said that play is the work of childhood. Even Maria Montessori agrees with this statement and so do many others who work in the field of child development. It is so vital that the United Nations recognizes it as one of the rights of a child. This subject has been extensively studied and theories were given birth as a result.

Here are the stages of play according to the researcher Mildred Parten. 

  1. Unoccupied play (from birth to 3 months) - at this stage the baby is making random movements that allows them to practice manipulating materials 
  2. Solitary play (birth to 2 years old) - the type of play where children entertain themselves and do not show expressed interest on what others are doing
  3. Onlooker play (2 years old) - the stage where children are actively watching others at play without joining in
  4. Parallel play (2+) - this type of play happens when children play next to each other or even with the same set of materials without interacting
  5. Associative play (3-4 years old) - at this stage, the child begins to show interest on other players and not just on the materials or toys at hand
  6. Cooperative play (4+) - this stage show more organization as children begin to discuss and adopt rules and goals for their activity

Understanding how children move from one stage of play to the next will allow the adults in their life to facilitate development. Let us recognize the high value that play has on the growth of our children. This is their primary vehicle to express their ideas, emotions and aspirations that might very well be their reality someday.

Let our children play their way to a healthy and holistic development! 

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