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A parent's guide to playtime

A mother playing an interactive game with her kids.

When parents join in playtime, kids benefit.

Want to give your child a head start in life? One way is to get together for some playtime.

You don't need structured games and educational toys. The kind of play that works best is called child-driven, or free play. It happens when kids are allowed to use their imaginations and move at their own pace, letting the play follow their interests. Adults can take part—in fact, it's a great asset if they do. But it's not free play unless the child is the guide.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), free play helps kids develop their imagination, thinking skills, and physical and emotional strength. Free play can help even very young kids learn to conquer fears, negotiate, cooperate with others and resolve conflicts. And studies show that children who have lots of opportunity for free play tend to be well-prepared for school.

Playtime basics

In order to do your best as playmate, it helps to be a little bit of a child yourself. Get down on the floor and look at the room from your child's point of view. It's a world full of possibilities, and he or she will love having you along for the exploration.

Ground level is a good place to start, but play can happen anywhere. Try these tips—from the AAP and other experts—for making the most of play opportunities throughout the day:

Encourage copycats. When you're cooking or doing housework, give your child plastic cups and plates so that he or she can copy your actions. Describe what you're both doing. For example, say, "We made some yummy soup."

Keep "true toys" on hand. These are toys like blocks and dolls that encourage active, imaginative play. Other good choices include beginner jigsaw puzzles, cars and trucks, board books with large pictures, dress-up clothes, crayons, and unbreakable containers of all shapes and sizes.

Follow the leader. Let your child be the guide to activities. If he or she shows interest in something, follow up by getting a picture book about it or finding other ways to explore the subject.

Get physical. Being active helps build healthy, fit young bodies. Try to set aside time for outside running and climbing games.

Minimize screen time. TVs and computers can keep a child's attention, but they don't encourage active play.

Make a play date. Two-year-olds are on the verge of learning to play cooperatively, and having other children around can help them along. Your child may soon be ready for a play group—your YMCA or community center may have one.

Know when to say when. Children run on a different clock than adults, and participating in playtime can seem like it takes a lot of your day. Don't keep at it until you get impatient. The AAP advises parents to take time for themselves as well. You'll come back with more energy.

Make it fun. Perhaps above all, playtime should be fun. When you spend enjoyable time with your child on a regular basis, you invest in his or her future by supplying a firm grounding in parental love. And that earns the best interest you can find.

Reviewed 1/4/2022

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