Last updated on Feb 8th, 2021 at 05:15 pm

We’re the first generation of parents to deal with an explosion of child-friendly modern technology – iPads, talking smartphones and tot-sized tablets designed to educate, entertain and entice our little ones.
However, we’re also screen smart; we know that playing outside, drawing, painting and building blocks are important for healthy development. The trouble is, many kids seem more interested in virtual reality than sandpits.
Research over the last few years shows spending hours in front of a screen may have negative physical and mental health consequences, but real play has quite the opposite effect.

ALSO SEE: Screen time can lead to your toddler developing sleep problems

The science of play

The ability to play is as critical to children as our adult careers are to us, explains Johannesburg occupational therapist Tamryn Paulsen of Innova OT. “Play is the most important occupation of a young child. It’s the tool used to discover the world, build the mind and body and interact in a meaningful, purposeful way.” We remember playing as children, so we assume that we know what healthy play development looks like, but there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Tamryn says she looks for the following when observing play:

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  • An intrinsic motivation to play
  • The process of play, rather than a focus on the product (branded toys or peer-pressure must-haves) and outcome (winning or losing)
  • The child’s ability to express free choice
  • His enjoyment and pleasure during the process
  • The level of active engagement, rather than parent-initiating play motivating the child
  • Spontaneous and natural play, rather than forced and controlled activity.

A child who is “good at playing” demonstrates a desire to play, explains Tamryn. He views it as something fun to do for its own sake, rather than to win something, or achieve a desired end result (this is the problem with so many educational toys and screen-based activities, which direct kids towards a particular destination or outcome).
“True play offers a platform to capture a child’s attention, to develop and stimulate motor skills, sensory processing and cognitive skills, and to build perceptual abilities.
“The magic of play is more than just the few minutes when a child is playing – it nurtures important social, emotional and language development, too.”

ALSO SEE: The importance of creative play and how it benefits your child’s development

Tangible toys are tops

Object play is on the decline, while screen time is on the rise, says Tamryn. This isn’t good news for healthy child development. “Screen time lacks the feedback loop and integration between touch, sound, vision and movement that builds highly complex channels in the young developing brain.

“Skills like reading and mathematics piggyback on important highways in the brain that are established from actual, physical interaction from infancy.”

Parents often don’t realise just how crucial basic toys are in raising healthy, well-balanced children. “Object play builds visual tracking and hand-eye coordination. These are important later on for education: drawing, colouring, cutting along a line, reading and writing. It contributes to intellectual development, including learning about the nature of objects, problem-solving, imagination and creativity.”

Regardless of your budget, tangible objects are easy to provide − anything goes, including:

  • A tub of sand or bucket of water
  • A box of blocks
  • Paintbrushes, giant crayons and play dough
  • A doll’s house or car garage
  • Stones or shells of various sizes
  • A regular supply of empty boxes.

These simple objects are more than enough to keep your little one entertained – and educated. “Being able to physically manipulate objects with her hands, based on the visual and touch information being fed to the brain for analysis, leads to the development of higher cognitive processing skills,” explains Tamryn.

ALSO SEE: 3 fun messy play ideas for toddlers

Technology: should we pull the plug?

“Not all play is equal,” says Tamryn, “and you’ll have heard it a thousand times before – limit screen time and encourage active play.” South Africa also has one of the world’s highest obesity rates, yet screen time is on the increase, she warns.

“I see kids playing with techno-savvy gadgets and devices wherever I go. This is great for building analytical skills, tactical thinking and problem-solving, and it’s amazing that even babies can sit in front of a screen for long periods, but screens do not have the benefits that play has.”

Good play habits are clearly shown to develop a healthy body, as well as well-developed mind and learning skills, says Tamryn. “Regardless of how affordable technology is these days, we must be mindful of its effects, and know when to pull the plug. “I am all for screen time being used in appropriate doses to provide meaningful and empowering learning experiences, but balance is key,” says Tamryn.

Play smarts

The general idea is to provide your child with a rich variety of play activities, explains Tamryn. “For example, we have inside and outside play, solitary and group play, large movement play such as swinging, climbing and jumping, and table-top activities. “These foster gross motor skills (running, skipping, jumping and climbing), fine motor skills (dexterity of fingers and hands) and build your child’s cognitive and perceptual abilities.”

We also need to be mindful of the fact that free play, which is not directed and the opposite of organised, and extra-curricular activities are critical building blocks at this stage. Beyond their basic needs and a nurturing environment, your future rocket scientist or fashion designer needs play, more than anything else, to thrive and learn.