Herzberg O, et al. Child Dev. 2021;doi:10.1111/cdev.13669.

Disclosures: Tamis-LeMonda reports no relevant financial disclosures.
October 06, 2021
2 min read

Active, exuberant play helps infants develop cognitive, social skills


Herzberg O, et al. Child Dev. 2021;doi:10.1111/cdev.13669.

Disclosures: Tamis-LeMonda reports no relevant financial disclosures.
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How infants spontaneously play in their daily environments may help them develop everyday learning faculties and grow cognitive, social and language abilities, according to a study published in Child Development.

“I give a lot of webinars and workshops reaching out with pediatricians and working with parents,” Catherine S. Tamis-LeMonda, PhD, a behavioral researcher and professor of applied psychology at New York University, told Healio. “And I have parents of toddlers say to me things like, ‘I'm really worried my child might have ADD or ADHD, and these are the early precursors.’ ‘He just won't sit still with his toys on the floor, and I got him this new puzzle, and he's not sitting there.’ ‘He's running all over the place and getting into things.’”

Baby with toy block in mouth
Children may develop cognitive and social skills through active, exuberant play. Source: Adobe Stock.

“And I started to think, we're expecting a 1-year-old to act like a 4-year-old in a preschool classroom. We're sort of telling parents, that's where you want your child to be,” continued Tamis-LeMonda, who also directs the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development’s Play and Language Lab.

For the study, Tamis-LeMonda and colleagues eschewed a lab-based form of observation. Tamis-LeMonda noted most of what is known about studying children’s play has involved structured tasks in a lab.

“Someone will sit them down, put them in a highchair, restrain them, give them one toy, another, look at attention,” she said.

Study participants included 40 infants (21 boys; 75% white) aged 13 months (n = 20), 18 months (n = 10) and 23 months (n = 10). They enrolled twice as many 13-month-olds to enable comparisons between crawlers and walkers.

The researchers filmed infants and their mothers with a handheld video camera during two 2-hour home visits with minimal interference. Infants were free to interact with whatever objects were available, with object interaction defined as infants manually displacing an object with their hands.

During play at home, Tamis-LeMonda said, babies transitioned among dozens of objects per hour in short bursts of activity (median time, 9.8 seconds), between toys and non-toys alike. The short interactions added up to infants spending 60% of their time interacting with objects. Further, the infants spent as much time playing with household objects — such as bins, boxes, pillows, remote controls, stools and cabinet doors — as they did with toys.

In the study, Tamis-LeMonda and colleagues “suggest that infant exuberant object play — immense amounts of brief, time-distributed, variable interactions with objects — may be conducive to learning object properties and functions, motor skill acquisition, and growth in cognitive, social, and language domains.”

“We really need to understand this is adaptive for toddlers,” Tamis-LeMonda said. “They're learning about their bodies, they're gaining fine motor skills, gross motor skills, cognitive skills, language, and all of those skills actually rest on the importance of picking up and playing with many, many, many things, and learning about everything in your environment.”

She said pediatricians could tell parents that their children could play without fancy toys, with many of her subjects going for common household items in their play. Tamis-LeMonda also said she hopes that the “narrative” of a distracted infant can be reversed.

“The narrative is the distractible toddler, the terrible 2, the troubling child who doesn't sit still, and I think that's the wrong narrative,” Tamis-LeMonda said. “So, my ultimate goal is to flip the narrative to an exuberant, active child who is adaptively learning about everything possible in their environment. And these have huge developmental implications for everything, from learning words, to learning about your body to fine motor skills, cognition and math. Every lesson in life is going to be created through active play.”