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Children benefit from four types of play away from screens

Young children benefit most from physical play.

“Working on those play skills are really important, because it’s one of the biggest ways children learn,” said Claire Jepson, a pediatric occupational therapist with Lehigh Valley Health Network. “They learn through play. They work on their fine motor skills, gross motor skills, visual skills, emotional and sensory regulation skills.”

During a recent “Because They’re Kids” online presentation about limiting screen use and increasing functional play, a parent asked how young is too young for screen time? Jepson said screens are not really beneficial for Infants and toddlers, because they “are too young to interpret what they are seeing and relate that to the world around them.”

Dr. Katie Kindt, a pediatrician for LVHN who was also available to answer questions, added that according to the American Academy of Pediatric guidelines, “Really no screen time is recommended for children less than 18 months. And from 18 to 24 months, really limited high-quality programming is only recommended.”

Kids of that age are not learning from screens, so they are not getting the educational benefit from it, she said.

Jepson said there are four types of functional skills that can benefit from physical play: fine motor skills, gross motor skills and body awareness, visual skills, and emotional and sensory regulation skills.

Fine motor skills

For infants, toys that are good for grabbing, reaching and holding are best. These toys should have be colorful or have bright lights and make sounds. These attributes increase the baby’s awareness and excitement about interacting with the toys.

The toys should also be small and light enough for the child to move it and bring it to his or her mouth but large enough to not be a swallow risk.

As the child grows, use toys with a purpose, such as stacking blocks, Jepson said. Make a tower and have him or her copy it. Using utensils or tools to scoop dried rice or beans from one container to the next is a good way to develop their skills.

Things like Play-Doh can help children practice using tools, such as knives, rolling pin, models and give them tactile play with sensory to their hands. It also provides resistance that can strengthen their hands.

Drawing and coloring help to develop strength in the hands. Large markers are good for little hands. Boundary awareness begins with coloring pages. Tracing pages are a great way to begin practicing for handwriting.

When it comes to dressing themselves, Jepson said many children are hesitant to learn these skills because it’s not an exciting thing. A fun way to get them to start practicing is to have them dress a stuffed animal, doll or teddy bear, which is also easier to do than dressing oneself.

Gross motor skills & body awareness

Jepson suggests using a toy like Mr. Potato Head and ask the child where the ears should go to develop body awareness. For children who are a little older, play a game like Simon Says, or two-step Simon Says for those who are even older.

Yoga for children of all ages can be good to help them with body control.

Visual skills

Shape sorters are good for little kids. Board puzzles, large piece jigsaw puzzles, find the difference pictures, and maze work sheets are good for those who are a little older. And I-Spy, license plate game, alphabet games are good for older children who would otherwise have their nose in a screen.

Emotional & sensory regulation skills

“Sensory bins are a really great way to practice these skills at home. You can make them yourself,” Jepson said.

Sensory bins can include kinetic sand or items from the kitchen such as dried rice or beans with a puzzle piece buried in it that has to be fished out. Or play with water in a bucket or use paint brushes.

Playgrounds are also great, but when the weather is bad, Jepson suggested creating an obstacle course in the house. Have the children hop across five pillows, crawl under the dining room table, and find a puzzle piece that they put in the puzzle, then race back to the beginning and do it again until the puzzle is done.

“That takes a simply game that you already have at home - a puzzle - and makes it a lot more sensory beneficial, a lot more steps to it. Makes it more fun for your child and works on a bunch of different skills at the same time,” she said.

Positive affirmations are always important, too. In order to help a child recognize his or her own positive attributes. Jepson suggested a fill-in-the-blanks sheet that asks the child to think about what they love about themselves or what they are capable of doing.