The Power of Play in Brain Development

Food isn’t the only thing that fuels brain development. Children also develop skills through playing! Perhaps when you hear the word “play,” what comes to mind is a game of tag or baseball, but play occurs as early as birth. Simple games like peek-a-boo and jack-in-the box are great games to play with infants as they offer the brain repeat experiences.

When children repeat experiences, the connections between brain cells are strengthened. Repeated activities also give children opportunities to practice their skills. What the child learns from a repeated activity actually changes in meaning as the child grows and develops. For example, a child may watch a jack-in-the-box pop up time and again. Initially, she may learn cause and effect, and begin to anticipate the clown popping up. As she grows and her motor skills develop, this activity holds new meaning as the child attempts to use her new found motor skills to reach for and turn the windup key herself. Offering experiences with a  range of related concepts is a good strategy for strengthening brain connections and promoting learning.

Repetition is not always helpful, though. For example, if a caregiver always or usually ignores a child’s cries, the “lesson” will be that the child is not important and cannot trust adults. This is NOT a positive, responsive interaction as we learned about earlier in our blog series. For example, reviewing math flash cards with infants does not strengthen the connections in the brain that lead to mathematical skills. Singing the alphabet song to babies does not lead to identification of letters. Furthermore, teaching a concept that is too advanced for your child, such as multiplication to a five-year old, may lead to frustration and quitting. So keep it positive and age appropriate!

When children play, they look, listen, touch, smell, and taste. They are moving their bodies and exploring the toys, people, places, and objects in their environment. They learn through their senses and hands on experiences, which enable them to perform necessary tasks and problem-solving in the future. Just as gross and fine motor skills develop sequentially, the areas of the brain develop for each child at differing times. Through this sensory play and, later, pretend play, the brain builds new connections and strengthens existing connections. These connections become the learning patterns of physical, emotional, cognitive, and social development. There is no need to rush your child’s learning and development. They all learn at their own pace. The truth is that the more engaged a child is —playing and enjoying himself– the more he is learning.

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