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Play is defined as “engaged in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose,” according to Oxford Dictionary.

Early childhood experts disagree. Research has shown that play is serious and important work for children. Through play, children are learning about the world around them. They are developing friendship skills — problem solving, negotiating, manners, self-control as well as academic skills — math, vocabulary, focused attention, cause and effect. Furthermore, children with strong social-emotional (friendship) skills tend to have positive school experiences.

Play is important. Given the many skills children develop through play, we as adults, need to foster play. How can we encourage our children to play?

Play with your child. Allow your child to be the leader. Encourage imagination. Initiate discussion by using open-ended phrases and questions: “Tell me about…” “I wonder…” “What do you think…?” Model the friendship skills you want your child to develop. Have fun! Finding the time and energy may be a challenge — the benefits are worth it.

Conversation is play. Describe to your baby what you are doing. Talk to your toddlers about what they see. Tell your children about your day and ask about their day. Tell stories — children love, “when I was a child” stories. Sing, dance, recite nursery rhymes, play “I Spy.” Talk, talk, talk to your children. Your child is learning the back and forth of conversation, strengthening their communication skills and developing a large vocabulary.

Play with books. Talk about the pictures. Ask questions. Relate the story to your child’s life. For example, point out the dog in the book and talk about your dog. Read the story if your child is interested, sprinkling in discussion throughout the story. Your child is developing a love of books and learning and strengthening their ability to focus.

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Play dates

Arrange for your child to play with other children. Here are some tips:

  • Immediately before the play date talk with your child about how to be “a good friend.” Talk with your child about situations that might arise and what your child could do by playing, “What would you do if…”
  • During the play date stay close and act as coach until child has developed strong friendship skills. Give children the words to use when needed. For example, say to your child, “Tell your friend, ‘you can play with this doll in a few minutes, after I put her to bed.” Or “Ask your friend, ‘can I please have a turn with the truck? Would you like to play with this car?’” Teaching your child to trade toys is a wonderful skill.
  • After the play date, give specific examples of how your child was “a good friend.” For example, “You were being a good friend when you asked your friend if you could help her make a block tower.” If playtime was difficult for your child, talk about ONE thing he/she could do next time, focusing on the behavior you want to see. For example, if your child hit or grabbed a toy, talk about how your child can ask for the toy next time. Review this skill again right before the next playtime.

Children learn friendship skills by practicing. Play with your child to teach these skills and coordinate play dates so they can try new skills and learn. Commit to 15 minutes of play each day. Through play, you are guiding your child in developing the friendship skills helpful for success in school.

More information

UW-Extension partners with local organizations to conduct workshops for parents and early care and education professionals. For more information, visit racine.uwex.edu, call 262-767-2929 or email uwextension@racinecounty.com.

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Pam Wedig-Kirsch is a school readiness and family resiliency educator for UW-Madison Division of Extension, Racine County.

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