Spending time playing with your child allows for fun, bonding, and memory making. But that's not all that play can do. According to a recent study, how you play with your toddler may impact their weight later in life. Researchers from Penn State University determined that when parents play alongside their children and encourage them to clean up after the fun is over, they help them gain the skills necessary to maintain a healthy weight later in life.
In order to determine how cleaning up and staying slim are connected, the team of researchers looked at 108 mothers and their 18-month-old children. They weighed the kids and asked them to participate in tasks to measure their temperament and regulatory skills, according to The Bump. Once the tasks were completed, moms and children played for five minutes until it was time to clean up, the Penn State report explained. Then the team observed and recording child involvement in the cleanup process and how the mothers guided them, including the tone of their voice.
The children were weighed again once they turned four and a half and the results showed that children had lower BMIs when mothers participated in play and gently guided their toddlers to clean up. Human development and psychology professor Cynthia Sifter of Penn State, who was involved in the study, told The Bump that parents should aim to be gentle whenever possible:
It’s understandable that parents can’t always be positive and gentle when controlling situations. But in situations where you can, this study implies that this way of parenting will teach the child a skill that they can apply in many situations, including waiting to eat or eating a less desirable food. This skill—complying when asked to do or not to do something—is one of the most important developmental tasks of early childhood.
Along with helping children to develop self-regulation skills, play helps children to develop in other ways as well. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, play contributes to children's cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being. It also gives parents a chance to fully engage with their children amidst growingly busy schedules. With work and school obligations, the AAP stressed the importance of allowing time to play. Children are receiving less free play time in school, and parents should aim to make play a priority as much as possible while at home.
Play is also one of the primary ways in which children learn about themselves and the world around them. Family Lives reported that play helps to build self worth by "giving a child a sense of his or her own abilities and to feel good about themselves." And since play is fun, children become so absorbed in their activities that they develop concentration skills too. What's not to love?
If that's not enough to convince you to break out the matchbox cars and Barbies, the National Literacy Trust listed a few more benefits of play. Playtime makes up the building blocks of literacy. During play, children learn to make new sounds, try out new vocabulary, and use their imaginations for storytelling. Parents benefit from play too. The NLT reported that play can teach parents about their children's body language, as well as patience and understanding. But it is important for parents not to overstep during play. While parent-led play can be useful at times, letting children take the lead optimizes their learning.
All of these benefits underscore the importance of not only letting your child play, but joining in on the fun. Teach them to explore, imagine, and clean up afterwards. You'll be glad that you did.