The Importance of Play. Or: Doing what you already do.

Before board games, before Go Fish, even before Patty Cake, there’s always been Peekaboo. No one needs to tell you how to play – mothers just instinctively know to pull their hands away from their faces, revealing a huge smile to that newborn baby. In fact, it’s one game that transcends culture and language all over the world.

When your little guy responds to your cry of “Peekaboo!” with fits of delighted giggles, your heart swells then directs you to repeat the game. Then repeat it again. And again. And probably a million times before that first year is through.

What’s fascinating however, is that there’s a biological reason for all this.

Moms instinctively know to play with their babies, but they may not know that it’s an essential part of a baby’s growth and development. When you sing “Where is Thumbkin” or simply wiggle your fingers in front of the baby and make a silly sound, you promote an understanding of language and communication. In Peekaboo, a baby is learning the important lesson of object permanence – that mommy or daddy have not gone away, even when their faces are hidden. Baby is also picking up on social cues simply from the interaction. Stacking blocks for a child to knock down provides a lesson in balance and structure, or elementary physics if you will.

Pretend play, like pantomiming the feeding of a baby doll, is extremely important in that it helps a baby understand symbols and metaphor—the idea that an object can stand for something else. This understanding is actually the basis of communication. So don’t be surprised if a language explosion soon follows. Very exciting! Of course it’s amazing that you are inherently hard-wired to interact with a baby in a way that offers up learning opportunities. But there are plenty of excellent things a baby can learn when you stand back and let him play by himself too.

Unstructured play lets a baby explore the world, and develop imagination and creativity—just the traits a parent wants in a child.

Or skip the toy chest and head to the kitchen; a few minutes alone between baby and some of your plastic measuring cups while you get dinner ready can be an introduction to the concepts of measurement and shapes. It can also buy you a few free minutes when you really, really need it.

Playtime helps a child develop all the skills he’ll need to succeed in the world, short of learning Mandarin. Just follow your heart, do what comes naturally, and continue inventing ways to keep you both entertained. No doubt your kid will thank you for it later.

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