When a child slides open a mouse in a matchbox, the storytelling adventures begin, and so does the development of their fine motor skills.
Jodie is a Pediatric Occupational Therapist, FORT Pure Play founder & mom of three boys.
Sally is the Director of lower school, Curriculum Developer, 1st Grade Teacher & mom.
Pretend play has many physical benefits. Whether their imagination takes them to a royal ball, safari adventure, or camping trip, they are active and moving around their play space. Through the natural simple movements of play, the child develops gross motor skills, fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and bilateral coordination which are critical for participation in social play, sports, and school. A child is having too much fun to see the valuable skills they develop during playtime, but as parents, we should value play for its many benefits.
Gross motor development is one of the primary tasks of the young child. You might immediately think of a child’s first steps and wonder what walking has to do with imaginative play. Remember the sandcastle you built on vacation? It was relaxing, relationship building, memory-making fun. And at the same time, your child used their gross motor skills, developing their core strength, coordination, and balance.
Your child walked back and forth with a bucket, filling it with heavy, wet sand at the shoreline and carrying it back to the castle in progress. They dipped the bucket over and lifted it, pouring out the sand. They walked, they squatted, they lifted, they walked again. The fun of building the castle inspired them to use their entire body, working hard to accomplish the task. For children, play accomplishes the work of healthy development.
Children use similar movements when they play at home. For toddlers, transferring things from one place to another is a favorite activity because it fulfills this important developmental task. Children have a natural drive to develop the skills that they will need. We can encourage healthy development by providing tools and toys that encourage active, rather than passive play. Toddlers can be happy simply moving things from one basket or room to another.
Young children use their gross motor skills as they create and engage in their pretend play. They may be carrying blocks across the house to build a tower, hand washing doll clothes and hanging them on the clothesline, or pushing a doll carriage. If you allow your child space to play, the gross motor development will happen naturally.
There are more subtle physical benefits embedded in playtime too. Children develop fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination during their imaginative escapades. Fine motor skills involve movements that use the small muscles in the hands or wrists. The beautiful, thoughtful and detailed toys invite significant fine motor effort.
Children use fine motor skills to stack and maneuver play pieces, and to accessorize their little Maileg characters. When they set up the tent and lantern, and tuck the mice into sleeping bags, they are using their fine motor skills.
When they play with soft animals, they are dressing, tucking, lifting, rocking, and hugging their tiny friends. All of this requires little hands and fingers to do intricate work.
When children use their hands to put the hat or swimsuit on the little mouse, or pack the miniature beach bag, they develop fine motor skills that will help them brush their teeth, zip up a jacket, and tie their shoes. These skills are important when school-aged children begin to write letters, words and stories.
Any play that strengthens fine motor skill also relies on hand-eye coordination. Putting pajamas onto a bunny uses hand-eye coordination. When your child moves the limbs of the ballerina bunny in a dance, they are using hand-eye coordination. Seemingly effortless moments like flying your soft friend through the sky requires the hands and eyes to move simultaneously in the same direction. This skill is critical for reading, writing, and sport later on.
Bilateral coordination is another important aspect of physical development the child gains from active, child-directed play. We rely on our bilateral coordination throughout the day for things such as walking, cutting, and sewing.
Bilateral coordination allows us to complete tasks that require the two sides of the body to work together, either doing the same movement or different coordinated movements.
Children develop their bilateral coordination when they use both sides of their body in a controlled and organized manner. For example, when a child moves their Teddy's arms as if the animal is clapping its hands, the child uses both sides of their body. When a child throws their Gantosaurus in the air and catches it, they are using bilateral coordination.
These normal, playtime rituals may seem insignificant, but they lay the groundwork for the progression into activities such as writing or riding a bike. When you realize how your child is learning and growing through play, you will be excited to provide them with the time and toys that will inspire their young imaginations.