How to Play and Enhance Learning With Todlers & Infants

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Featured Speaker:
Emily Tracey

Emily Tracey, PA-C
Emily Tracey PA-C is an easygoing, compassionate, and trustworthy person, she began her career in medicine in 2010 at a rural family practice and switched to providing general pediatrics in late 2012. She enjoys seeing the big picture and says the relationships she forms with her patients and the community are what she likes most about being a health care provider.

About This Podcast

It might look like your child is just "playing", but your child is hard at work learning important physical skills as they gain muscle control, balance, and coordination.

Parents should give their child many opportunities to practice their developing skills while providing supervision so they stay safe while they learn and grow.

Emily Tracey PA-C, is here to discuss how parents can help in the overall development of their child by allowing them to explore and experience all varieties of great activities.


Melanie Cole (Host): Play is a child’s work. It’s so important for their development and for children to bond with their parents. My guest today is Emily Tracey. She’s a physician assistant in pediatrics at Aspirus Health. Welcome to the show, Emily. So play--people think of playing outside, they think of play in so many different ways but when we’re talking about infants and toddlers, what type of play do you like to recommend that parents spend time doing with their children?

Emily Tracey (Guest): Well, from the minute children are born, parents instinctively play by smiling and getting their child to giggle and laugh at them. There are a variety of different types of play. Early on, it’s more of that unoccupied play where the child is busy making random movements with no clear purpose, and this is the initial form of playing. Parents can encourage this by being very responsive with facial expressions and sounds. As children get older, in the toddler stage, they do more solitary play. And this is a lot of play that has decreased over time as we’ve gotten variety of contraptions that we place our children in whether it’s swings, bouncers and ExerSaucers. This is the one thing that parents can really, really emphasize and do with their child. This means that they’re exploring their world by watching, by grabbing, by touching things. They’re using their senses to feel their space and to learn about objects and what they do.

Melanie: So, if a parent is using those things, are you saying it would be better to have the child on the floor or can we use those bouncers and swings and things or is that too much occupation for what you’d like them to be doing?

Emily: Limit the time. Believe it or not, an ExerSaucer, if you would talk to an occupational therapist or a physical therapist, they would recommend less than 10 minutes a day. So, they are great when you need to make dinner or you need to go to the bathroom, but when you have the time, getting your children on the floor and letting them explore their body and their surroundings is the best thing you can do.

Melanie: The American Academy of Pediatrics stresses the importance of play in early childhood development. Emily, what type of play do you like to recommend as they become toddlers because now, as you say, we’ve got so many new things and tablets and phones. Are blocks still better than using these electronic devices?

Emily: Absolutely. That kind of play is more called “constructive play”. So, it’s allowing your child you put things in their mouth. So, although you may not want your child to chew on books, it’s good to explore and use all of our senses--playing in sand, drawing, building with blocks. As children get a little bit older, in between that two to three years of age, they want to copy you, so giving them pots and pans and cleaning utensils to help learn all those things that you are doing.

Melanie: So, then, where does social play fit in? Because around three, maybe, kids are starting to sort of socialize with other children. They kind of do that side by side play where they’re not completely involved in what each other is doing or only long enough to take something from the other child.

Emily: Absolutely. So, it starts on with just that onlooker play, and that happens mostly in the toddler years where they’re just watching. Even young children that have older siblings, we know that they’ll spend just a lot of time watching their siblings, and that does shape them. Then, they start parallel playing where they’re playing next to each other but they’re not actually looking at each other or care that there’s somebody next to them, but that is the start where they start learning the property rights, the idea of “mine”. So, you constantly are hearing toddlers saying, “Mine, mine,” and grabbing things away. Once they get to be three or four, they get more interested in other children than the toys, and that’s where they get more loosely organized play. This play allows these preschool aged children to learn the do’s and don’ts about getting along with others, and that is very important. So, if your child in not in the daycare setting or have close kids their age, it’s important to try to have some play dates or be in areas where they can have that unstructured play.

Melanie: So, then, what about cognitive learning and enhancement? Because, as we mentioned, they’re exposed to so much technology, computers and videos, but is this taking away from more motor physical play if they’re spending too much time with a screen? Can it take away from their physically active learning?

Emily: Absolutely. When you have more screen time, we see a dip in language. So, they take some steps back in regards to language, right, but they also do not develop the same hand-eye coordination and manual dexterity that we want when they’re using a tablet to perform skills. It’s different tracing a letter on a tablet than it is using a pencil to draw. Those manual dexterity things are going to help them as they get to school so it’s important to limit their time with tablets and encourage them to use their body.

Melanie: What do you tell parents, Emily, when they say, “But I've heard that it’s going to make my kid smarter to play with my iPhone at two years old because, look! They can scroll around and they can point out the pictures of the cows.”? What do you tell parents? Because I imagine this is a very common question.

Emily: There is a role in technology. It’s not saying that you can't use technology, and you’re right. You can use a tablet similar to a book where they are learning to scroll just like they would learn to flip a page. Just like everything, it’s about limiting the time and making sure that you’re using the products in an educational way. Now, there are a lot of good apps and resources. Some of them are listed on the “Healthy Children” website through the American Academy of Pediatrics. But it’s making sure that you are connecting with your child. If you’re going to have them play on the tablet, have them sit on your lap and go through that, “What is the cow say?” Be interactive. Your role in how they’re using the tools around them is just as important as the tools.

Melanie: And, you mentioned chewing on things, and kids do like to chew on books--especially little guys. How important is that we read to our children even when they’re young and can't really understand what we’re reading?

Emily: Reading is one of the most important things we can do to allow our children to succeed. We know that that time together as a family where we’re sitting down looking at books, not only enhances their language but also that time together. Reading is easy. It is a time to relax and settle down, and also de-stress. Parents are pulled in all different directions and it helps to regroup the family by having reading time.

Melanie: So, wrap it up for us, Emily, because it’s such a great topic as play is such an essential and critical part of a child’s development. Kind of give us your advice what you tell parents every day about the importance of play, what you really want them to do with their children.

Emily: What I really want most parents to do with their children is to get on their scale--on their level. Be present. So, if you’re cooking, give them a pot and pan and talk to them the whole time. Tell them that you’re stirring; let them stir. Read Goodnight Moon for the fourth time if you have to but play and learning go hand in hand and it’s something that we really need to make time for. It’s exhausting but the benefits of playing with your children will make lifelong learners.

Melanie: Thank you so much. Really great information. You’re listening to Aspirus Health Talk. For more information, you can go to That's This is Melanie Cole. Thanks so much for listening.