12/07/2012 02:09 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

Dr Toy's Rx: Play Is Essential

It is important to monitor children's time spent with electronics, TV and other media. Watching TV is rote and passive, while physical play can contribute to a child's optimal mental, physical, social and emotional development.

Play is a natural drive to discover the essence of a happy childhood. While TV and electronics can be an easy, simple substitute, playful interaction with playmates and toys is essential for a child's full development. Turning on TV and foregoing time for playfulness underestimates the importance of play and its essential role in learning and growth.

Babies and toddlers need sounds (music, talking, nature) and playful parents. Balance is essential, not just the first two years, but throughout childhood.

Playing games, building with blocks or construction toys, creating projects, reading aloud, solving puzzles and playing outdoors are great ways to play. So, too, is playing with dolls, creating a puppet theatre from a cardboard box and having fun with transportation toys and many other play things.

When young children have plenty of time to play, absorbing, practicing, learning from mistakes, and, most of all, discovering new things, they develop crucial skills. As infants grow, they play with innumerable things around them: their hands, toes, sunbeams coming in the window, and soft toys. They also discover sounds when babbling and talking to themselves. TV and electronic devices, while fun to use, interfere with natural forms of play and, in my opinion, should not be substituted for hands-on creative play.

Three types of toys contribute to the development of children: active, creative and educational.

Active playthings like balls, bicycles and jump ropes, improve a child's physical activity and provide exercise.

Creative toys
stimulate the child's imagination at all levels, as the child experiences surprise and expands thinking and self-expression. Creative toys include blocks, building toys, crafts, dollhouses, mirrors, musical instruments, puppets, stuffed animals and art supplies.

Educational toys
help child learn specific skills, sometimes simultaneously. Any toy can be educational if used in an enriching way. These include board games, books, construction toys, pegboards, puzzles and audio and video media. Play helps with reading, writing and building skills that prepare for math and science.

While a good play environment and the right types of toys are important, the participatory role of parents is crucial.

Regardless of work schedule, taking the time to play reduces stress, improves communications and adds laughter and relaxation to all members of the family, especially the youngest ones.

Parents should encourage and stimulate the child's Play Quotient (PQ). As the child's "Play Guide," parents teach skills to be happier and get along better with others. Parents enhance a child's "PQ" by choosing toys carefully, joining in their play, and taking the time to read. Playful parents (and teachers) encourage a child to be playful -- a more playful child is more aware, smarter and resilient. The benefits are enormous.

Every library and preschool should consider creating a toy lending library to make toys easier to obtain, share and learn about.

Turn off TV and turn on play, for happier and healthier children (and adults).
Let's play!

© 2012 Stevanne Auerbach, PhD, Dr. Toy