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Free play helps infants learn and develop

The benefits of playing with objects (such as cars, dolls, blocks, puzzles) for infant learning and development are well documented in many structured experiments taking place in child-friendly lab environments. However, very little is known about how natural play unfolds spontaneously in real-life settings. A recent study led by New York University (NYU) aimed to address this research gap by investigating infant free play in home environments.

Study participants included 40 infants from families living in New York. In order to enable comparisons between crawlers and walkers, the scientists selected twenty 13 month-olds, ten 18 month-olds, and ten 23 month-olds. The study took place between December 2017 and September 2019. 

The researchers recorded infants who were free to interact with whatever objects they wanted during two home visits. While playing at home, infants exuberantly transitioned among dozens of objects each hour, showing preference to both toys and common household objects such as boxes, bins, pillows, stools, or remote controls.   

“Our findings show an essential first step in identifying the everyday inputs to infants’ natural learning,” said study co-author Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, a professor of Applied Psychology at NYU. “At a time in development when infants must acquire information about what objects are and what they can do with them, massive amounts of practice playing with a variety of objects at home is beneficial for learning. And varied exploration is adaptive. We thus seek to flip the narrative from a critique of what infants have not yet achieved to an acknowledgement of how infants interact with their natural learning environment at home.”

According to study lead author Orit Herzberg, a postdoctoral fellow at NYU, infant’s exuberant behavior should not be seen as flighty and distractible, but rather as a developmental asset – “an ideal curriculum for learning about the properties and functions that propels growth in motor, cognitive, social and language domains. Infants learn about the world by playing with as many things as possible, in short bursts of activity. And every object is a potential play object.”

The study is published in the journal Child Development.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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