The Secret to Educational Playtime with Your Kids {It's Easier than You Think}

"Mom, I want a combine to play with like the one in the farm book" said my son (age 2.5) at the time.

"Well, we don't have a toy combine" I said in passing. 

He looked sad and at a loss as to what to play with. "Wait," I said, "we can make one out of Duplos." 

"Really?" he asked, not so sure as to what I was talking about. 

"Sure, let's see what I can help you figure out" I said and quickly grabbed up some Duplo blocks and started piecing them together. 

Before long we had a "combine" made out of all of 4 Duplo blocks. I made a "vroom" sound as I ran it over a field of toy corn we already had. He loved it. You could instantly see the gears in his head turning as he decided how he could play with it. He carried it around all day, even in the car. 

As a parent, you may wonder if all that time you spend with your child playing with blocks and puzzles really helps them learn anything. In an age in which new, high-tech toys are showing up on shelves everyday, it is tempting to think that "old fashioned" toys like blocks and puzzles are boring.

In an age where "everyone" is sending their children to academic preschools to learn phonics and addition, you may wonder if this seemingly simple play with blocks really helps them at all.

The Secret to Educational Playtime with Your Kids

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However, research is showing us that this is far from the truth. A recent study by researchers at Temple University showed that young children who played with blocks along with an interactive adult developed a larger spatial vocabulary (e.g., words like "under" or "over"). Spatial vocabulary, not surprisingly, is associated with the development a better spatial abilities. 

Having good spatial abilities is not only important if you dream of your child becoming an engineer, they also come in handy in everyday life. If you've ever tried to put together a piece of unassembled furniture, you know the importance of spatial skills. 

The key aspect of this study is the role that parents play in interacting with their children at play. In the study, children were placed in three groups to compare:

  1. "free" play with the blocks with little assistance from adults, 
  2. "preassembled" play in which the blocks were glued together into a structure, or 
  3. "guided" play in which adults helped children create a structure based on graphic instructions.

As you might expect, children in the "guided" play group showed the highest development of spatial vocabulary. This was due to the fact that children learned concepts like "over" and "under" from listening to the adults work with them in creating the block structure. 

Play-Based Learning

Beyond the development of spatial skills, this study reminded me of the importance of this 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 sons that they will often come up with an idea of something they want to create or imitate based on something they saw in a book or video, but they may not quite know how to implement it. Once they mention an idea, I will help them come up with the tools (usually whatever toys are lying around) to create the vision.

The Secret to Educational Playtime with Your Kids {It's Easier than You Think}

Luckily, kids have great imaginations and almost any combination of Legos can turn into the desired object. Once they have their creations in hand, they usually are off and playing with very little intervention from me.

Related post: A Day in the Life of a Child Under 4: New Guidelines for Sleep, Movement and Screen Time

This is really the key--they are really engaged in the play because it is based on their interests. It's not some contrived art project that I think looks cute, but they have no interest in. In my experience, the best "guided play" is really just taking their interests and running with it. 

Bringing Back the Joy of Playtime

When I see their little brains figuring out how to construct something new, this is what brings the joy back into playtime for me. The best times happen when I'm not saying, "go play with your toys" or "turn off the TV and go play outside" (although I have been known to say that). The real magic happens when I'm just offering a little spark of an idea and they make their own plan of how to play.

Of course, it can be a bit tricky at times to find their interests, but with a little questioning you can usually figure it out:

  • Does your child have a favorite book?
  • Does your child have a favorite TV show?
  • Is he or she really into a particular toy or topics right now (e.g., trains, dinosaurs, worms, etc)?

Take this interest, then find a way to help them create it, use it, or experience it in their own world.

I think one of the main messages of the Temple study is the importance of guided play. Playing with blocks 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.

Related Resources:

Pley--quit buying toys; rent them instead (including Legos)

rent toys

The Whole Brain Child

Perfect for Pinning:

The Secret to Educational Playtime with Your Kids

Ferrara, K., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Newcombe, N., Golinkoff, R., & Lam, W. (2011). Block Talk: Spatial Language During Block Play Mind, Brain, and Education, 5 (3), 143-151 DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-228X.2011.01122.x

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