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The Practice of Play 20 Minutes A Day


By Melinda Macht-Greenberg, PhD


In 1986, I began collecting data for my doctoral dissertation.  I met with dozens of mothers and their young children to better understand the connection between symbolic play, cognition, and language development.  What I learned decades ago remains true today.  There is a strong link between pretend play and other areas of infant and preschool development. A minimum of 20 minutes of play a day will enhance your child’s cognitive and language skills.


In order to learn more, I evaluated children over a three year period.  I assessed their cognitive, expressive and receptive, and symbolic play skills at 1, 2, and 3 years of age.  Symbolic play data was gathered by videotaping free play sessions between the children and their mothers.  The only instruction to the mothers was “play with your child as you would at home”. I scoured and coded hours of video tapes looking for clues to development and interpersonal relationships.  What I noticed was both simple and amazing at the same time: mothers who had the capacity to use toys in a symbolic way, had children with strong pretend play skills.  Not only that, but these kids also had better developed language skills at an earlier age.  We know now that symbolic play is also connected to early reading skills, which is yet another benefit of pretending with young children during play.


I vividly remember some of the mothers who were actively playing with their kids and loving every minute of their time together.  For instance, there was the mother who held one end of the slinky with the two-year-old holding the other end. They pretended to be holding steering wheels of their cars and the mother chatted with the child about the places they were “visiting” while they were out on a “drive”.  


But there were far too many parents who did not seem to know how to play with their children. These mothers did not talk with their children or make up stories as they played.  Many sat at a table and used the materials by themselves. For example, several mothers colored with crayons on their own while their children sat on the floor with other toys. There was no social or language engagement and the mothers did not foster pretend play or encourage their children to explore. Not surprisingly, I recall that these children used fewer words to express their thoughts and needs in comparison to those children who actively played with their mothers.


So, what can we learn from this research? There is value in playing with your young children.  Push aside any item that needs to be plugged in or charged and play with everyday items and old fashioned toys.  Play with your child at least 20 minutes a day. While you are playing, talk with your child.  Make up stories about anything and everything.  You can make up stores about farms, families, adventures, visits to grandma etc.  You can pretend to drive the car, pretend to cook the food, pretend to meet a lion, pretend to climb a tree, pretend to feed the baby doll-- anything as long as you foster pretend play in your child. Recently, I spent time with a 10 month-old baby.  Over and over again, we put coasters in the pot and took them out.  Babies love the fill and spill activities.  We took the play to a new level as I talked about stirring soup in the pot and we pretended to feed the doll. We played out the same scenario several times and each time the baby banged the pot louder and tried to say “spoon”.  I’m not sure which one of us had more fun but I am sure that I was teaching her more than how to make noise with a spoon and a pot.  I was building the foundation of symbolic representation through pretend play and she will use this to build other skills as she gets older.


So, turn off the smartphones and take out the pots and pans.  Sit on the floor with your little one and give them your undivided attention for 20 minutes.  And play.  Such a simple activity that offers substantial enrichment to your child and will benefit him or her for a ways you can only imagine.

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