Monday, February 28, 2011

Playtime- it's a science!

One of the coolest things about my work is that I get to observe parents and preschoolers every day. More specifically, I watch videos of mothers and their children playing together and look for different behaviors and qualities. Then, we take those qualities, give them numbers, and see how they relate to other parts of the child’s life (e.g., verbal development, behavior problems).

One specific aspect we examine is what we call parental sensitivity. It has to do with how in-tune to the child the mother is and it manifests in lots of ways. For example, a very sensitive mother usually won’t insist that their child play with toys in a certain way and will even embrace the ‘new’ way her child approaches a toy. So, for instance, when her child decides to ‘cook’ the blocks in the play oven, a sensitive mom might remark, “Oh, I see you’re pretending that the blocks are food! What delicious meal are you making?” This not only allows the child her own creativity and independence to express herself, but it also encourages interaction and imagination.

Another way moms and dads can be sensitive and in-tune with their children during playtime is by letting the child take the lead, or being ‘child-centered.’ Being child-centered is in contrast to being adult-centered. Think of it this way: playtime isn’t about just you. It’s about your child or, better yet, the relationship between you and your child. A child-centered parent allows her child to influence the pace of play, but can tell when her child needs support (steadying a toy so that the child can manipulate it) or redirection (getting bored and moving to another toy/activity).

Being sensitive is in contrast to being intrusive- insisting that your child play according to your agenda and being overly directive ("Do it like this. No! Not like that! It doesn't go there!") or overwhelming your child with instructions or stimulation ("This one's green and this one's red and this one's blue. What's this called? What this called? What's this called??" When your child is clearly interested in something else.) OR being detached- going through the motions in an unemotional sort of way, not really paying full attention to what's going on.

Now wait a second. I know what you're thinking. You've all been there. Probably in both situations, but most definitely the latter- the 'I'm exhausted, you woke up 7 times last night, how in the world do you have energy for playing or expect me to have energy to play with you right now?' state of mind. It's okay. Remember when I told you it's okay not to be a perfect parent?? Okay, now that that's out of the way...

A different aspect we look at is called cognitive stimulation. Cognitive stimulation fosters healthy child development and is even related to outcomes like grades and obesity! So, what is it? Stimulation for preschool children starts with a goal of teaching. The goal can be accomplished in lots of ways: labeling objects or pictures in a book, having the child label, demonstrating how tools and toys are used, or even just commenting on what the child is doing in a descriptive way (“I see you’re using the green hammer to hammer the blue nail.”). Other ways to stimulate your child can be much more imaginative- encourage pretend play by pretending with your preschooler or create a story as you play. Try to balance learning and having fun!

This is just a small glimpse into what I get to do on a daily basis and what we look at when we watch moms and kids play. Want to know more about how to make the most out of playtime? I highly suggest The Ready Method.

P.S. One group of researchers thinks playtime is so important (and it is!) that they’ve created what they call the Ultimate Block Party 

Happy playtime!


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