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Study shows playtime with both parents crucial to child development

By Brooke Walker | Posted - Mar. 9, 2012 at 5:28 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY -- A new study spanning over 15 years shows that dads who play with their kids make a big difference in a child's cognitive development.

Utah State University researchers tracked 229 children from low income families for 15 years. They observed the children playing with both mother and father in separate, semi-structured play sessions. They then rated the level of stimulation, taking into consideration both quantity and quality of play. At age three, they tested kids' vocabulary and in fifth grade, they were given standardized math and reading tests.

Researchers discovered not only does how you play, and how often you play, with your child effect their academic success.

"It's not just playing with our kids - it's how we play with our kids," said Gina Cook, Family, Consumer and Human Development Researcher at USU, who conducted the study.

The study was unique in that up until now, most playtime studies focused on mother-child interaction, while this involved fathers too.

"Those fathers added above and beyond to what the mothers were doing in relation to their child's outcome ten years later," Cook said.

While previous studies have shown that imaginative play can help with a child's early education -- like when they're learning how to read - they found that the effects last beyond that, like when a child takes a fifth-grade math test.

So what does that mean for playtime in your house? Researchers offer these takeaways: really engage in pretend play with your child and encourage make-believe. Elaborate on pictures and words in books or on toys and bring those details to life. Finally, relate the play to your child's experiences.

Researchers say that parents can't just sit and watch TV with children or read a book quickly from beginning to end. Parents should play at a different level and make kids think and push them beyond their developmental level.

Pending additional funding, researchers hope to continue to track these children through high school.

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Brooke Walker


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