Playing and exploring helps children develop their brains and learn how to interact socially and emotionally with kids and caregivers. It also makes learning fun for them. As I am learning with my own son, play is one of the most important areas of activity children engage in as they grow and develop. One of my favorite things to do with my baby is to play with him outside and let him explore new things in different ways. We like to be messy and explore with our hands; we like to feel different textures with our fingers, like dirt, water, sand, or rocks; and we experience different types of smells every time with our noses.
Children use their senses to help them learn, absorbing "information by reaching and touching, exploring the world with fingers and toes and mouth, and making contact with people and things," according to Dr. Stevanne Auerbach's book Dr. Toy's Smart Play Smart Toys. Playing with my baby helps me learn and understand what kind of activities he likes to do and how he likes to interact with me. In him, I see that children learn how to make sense of their world as they play. Play teaches them different ways of interacting with others and provides them with chances to explore new things.
The role of play is so important in early brain development because studies show that the more babies interact with others through play, the more they develop new neural connections in their brains. In my GRADS parenting class, we played a game that illustrated this by building three "brains" with yarn. For each "brain," the class stood in a circle and tossed around a ball of yarn as the teacher read from a list of parent-baby interactions. For every interaction she read, we tossed the ball of yarn a certain number of times. Every time someone caught the yarn, she or he held onto that point before tossing it to the next person across the circle, so every toss represented a new neural connection. It was really awesome because at first we were confused about what was going on, but then we realized we were making a kind of web or map of connections that happen in a baby's brain through different interactions. According to First Things First, an Arizona organization supporting healthy child development, "A newborn baby has all the brain cells (neurons) they'll have for their life, but it's connection between these cells that really make the brain work." These connections between neuron cells are called neural pathways or neural connections.
In the class activity, we built one "brain" with five yarn tosses after statements like "You play with your child, laugh, and have fun as much as possible" and "You read to your baby every day." We built our second "brain" with three yarn tosses after statements like "You talk to your child and explain what you're doing sometimes." And we built our third with only one toss after statements like "You don't spend much time interacting with your child." I learned that the more I interact with my baby, the more neural connections he makes and the stronger his brain is getting. The less a parent interacts with a baby, the less he learns new stuff because fewer neurons get connected.
Also in my GRADS class, students do preliteracy activities with our babies. These involve a lot of playing and face-to-face interaction, which is like me being a mirror for my baby but it is better because I can respond to him. A Live Science article about baby brain activity explains how this connects to brain development: "[S]o-called mirror neurons, … fire both when we do an action ourselves, and when we watch others do a similar action." Mimicking is a powerful form of learning for infants, children, and adults, and my baby often mimics everything I do.
Through the role of play, babies learn how to interact with kids and caregivers socially and emotionally. Babies' early experiences in relationships are important, whether they're at home or in an early education environment. As babies experience, respond to and mimic different kinds of emotions, their brains start to understand how they are treated and how to relate to others. Children "understanding and expressing emotions in healthy ways can help support and contribute to the development of social skills, including playing, making and keeping friends, and getting along with others," according to the Virtual Lab School, an online professional development resource for childhood educators. This takes time.
When I take my baby to play at a park, he doesn't quite feel secure playing with other kids unless I am by his side. Eventually, he likes to play parallel to, but not interacting with, other kids. This is not abnormal for a one-and-a-half-year-old, but I want to help my baby feel more confident around other people and kids. According to the Virtual Lab School, a child's independence starts with him feeling secure: "When infants and toddlers feel safe and alert, they are more likely to observe, explore, play, interact, and experiment with people and objects." I know my baby feels safe with me because he likes to try new things when it's just the two of us. As Luis grows I will show him how to play with kids so he can feel confident exploring new activities and making friends. I hope that learning stays fun for him.
Kids really need their parents for them to be part of their life from babyhood on. A program called the Circle of Security has helped me understand this. I learned about the Circle of Security from Joanne Lewis with United Way of Santa Fe County. Circle of Security Parenting is a program supporting healthy parent-child relationships and "promoting secure attachment in children." Tools like reflection and observation help parents know what to look for so we can read and respond to our children's behavior and meet their needs.
It works like a circle. A child begins at one point on the circle with his. parent or "safe haven." From this point, he goes out along the circle, away from his parent, to explore his world, experience freedom and build confidence. Then, he returns to his safe parent, coming around the circle to check in for comfort and protection and for his parent to delight in him. A child might travel this whole circle in a few seconds or in an hour. The circular shape of the child going out to explore and returning for reassurance can be laid over many activities and experiences. All along the way, a child needs his caregiver to be a kind and safe "haven" to return to—and to be able to be in charge when it's necessary. I try to be aware of where my child is along the Circle of Security as he explores so that I can understand where in the circle I should be for him.
It is good to give young children their own space, as long as it's safe, because "when a toddler knows that she can explore her environment and yet return to a parent when she needs help, she becomes secure and confident." This advice, from a University of Ilinois Extension webpage called "Dealing with Toddlers," is in line with the Circle of Security idea, and I think it can help parents support kids' healthy development through play.
It is important for toddlers to interact with a variety of activities so their brains can develop in many different ways. When it's a rainy day or it's too cold, my baby and I read books together and play inside with bubbles, gameboards and toys. The fun part is when we get to go outside and play with mud and dirt, go on walks, go to parks, water the flowers and do other fun stuff. It is more fun for toddlers when you are around and interacting with them, and playing together right now is a lot about my son going out and exploring new things. This makes sense because "toddlers must move around to learn about their world" according to "Dealing with Toddlers." Playing and exploring at the same time is what makes learning fun—and this is true not only for little kids. As Luis grows I hope he keeps wanting to play and explore new things and that learning stays fun for him.
Play and exploration help build a toddler's imagination, sense of adventure, happiness, and ability to bond with other kids. What I like best about playing, though, is that play is joyful, and one way to value life is by how you bring joy into it. I love Albert Einstein's quote about how "imagination is more important than knowledge," and I believe that play has a lot to do with developing our kids' imaginations and brain power. More and more research suggests that early brain development has a lasting impact on a child's ability to learn and succeed in school and life. That's why I play with my child and try to enjoy every moment I spend with him.
This has affected my education, too, and I feel happy that I was able to be in the GRADS parenting program at Capital High School for the past two years. It has taught me about parenting, brought me joy and challenged me to complete things instead of giving up on them. Finishing high school as a parent has been like me trying to figure out a puzzle out with my child. It was hard for me at times, but working together made it possible to finish it. The thing I'm most grateful for, though, is that it has encouraged me to spend interactive play and exploration time with my own child—and that's good for both of us.
Elizabeth Medina Ramirez completed two years of the Mother Tongue Project English class and Mentor program at Capital High School, where she wrote this essay (and many others). She also co-composed and presented an original poem for the 2019 New Mexico Public Education Department Town Hall Event in Support of Young Parents. Elizabeth graduated from Capital High on May 23, 2019, and plans to attend Santa Fe Community College. She hopes to study towards a career in the field of medicine or early childhood education.