Guided Play Means a Chance to Return to Your Childhood

Autism and Child Motor Skills DevelopmentParents out there you know how it goes: you play the same game over and over again with your toddler or you help them put together a puzzle. This is the daily “stuff” of parenting and you may feel it doesn’t make a difference. Well, turns out, it does make a difference! A recent study from the University of Montreal and the University of Minnesota shows that how parents interact with young children helps them develop crucial cognitive skills. Here’s a brief overview of the study: – researchers studied 80 pairs of moms and their one-year-old children – the study focused on how moms interacted with their children in tasks such as playing games or putting together puzzles – the researchers examined how these interactions predicted children’s “advanced cognitive functions”–those are things like controlling impulses, remembering things and having mental flexibility It turns out that how moms interact with their children in these tasks help the child develop these important cognitive skills. Children whose moms who interacted in the following ways had better cognitive skills at 18-26 months: – provided guidance and scaffolding in tasks that were difficult for the child but did not take over the do the task for him/her – followed the child’s lead and pace in completing the task or playing the game – used a warm and sensitive tone when interacting with the child One of the most important findings of the study was that these types of interactions helped support the child’s autonomous behavior–that is, the child learns to do activities on their own.

This is a great skill for kids to learn, but it does take some practice and help from parents to start. This is really the essence of the idea of “guided” play. Play really is the “work” of childhood and research has shown repeatedly how play-based learning fits better with young children’s developmental capabilities than rote learning. Play-based learning, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that kids should be left to their own devices all the time; some adult guidance is useful in helping kids structure their play and learn new concepts. This doesn’t mean you have to instruct your child how to play, but offering some ideas or a starting point is often helpful.

I have found in playing with my son (age 2.5) that he will often come up with an idea of something he wants to create or imitate based on something he saw in a book or video, but he doesn’t quite know how to implement it. Once he mentions an idea, I will then help him come up with the tools (usually whatever toys are lying around) to create his vision. For example, he recently read about a combine in a farm book so he wanted to play with one. Since we didn’t have a toy combine, I showed him how to create one out of Legos. Luckily, kids have great imaginations and almost any combination of Legos can turn into the desired object. Once he had his creation in hand, he was off and playing with very little intervention from me.

I think one of the main messages of the study is this idea of guided play. Playing with toys in itself is not magical, it’s the guidance and vocabulary offered by adults that really seems to make the difference in children’s learning. “Guided play” may sound like a daunting task, but it’s really just a return to your childhood and in the process helping your child discover his or her world.


About the Author

Amy Webb, PhD is a scholar turned stay-at-home mom with two young sons. With her blog, The Thoughtful Parent, she brings academic child development and parenting research into the lives of parents in the trenches of child-rearing. She does not claim to be a parenting expert, but rather a translator of academic research into reader-friendly articles.


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