Five ways with stimulating play

Early brain stimulation promotes social and other skills in young children. Mothers and fathers tend to offer different sorts of interactions writes JENNIFER STGEORGE drawing on research into the nature of play to explore five evidence-based ways parents and early years educators can foster exploration and playfulness.

More than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second throughout a child’s early years. But connections in the brain will fade away unless used, which is why early stimulation of the brain promotes later social, emotional and cognitive capabilities. Although almost any activity has the potential to be stimulating, there is much that caregivers can do to promote the child’s exploration in order for neural connections to proliferate. In this blog, we explore five evidence-based ways in which parents and early years educators can purposefully foster exploration and playfulness. This is based on research where we are investigating the nature of father-child play in order to better understand fathers’ relationship with their children, given that we’ve found that we can best assess a dad’s relationship with his child when we watch them play together.

Our investigation of paternal stimulation led us to organise a range of ‘stimulating’ parenting interactions into five categories representing a ‘continuum’ of stimulation that ranges from potentially arousing (e.g., book reading or telling stories) to explicitly arousing, such as rough and tumble play. As you can see, stimulation can vary in tempo, frequency, or consistency over time. Imagine how many ways a story can be read, or how boisterous a game of chasing could be. Stimulating activities are appropriate and effective when a child is ready to explore (relaxed and alert), and when they need the encouragement and support of a stronger more knowledgeable ‘other’. Just as Vygotsky and others suggested. Importantly, the stimulation causes learning, in all its guises.

We found that these five categories of stimulating play with infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers were related to a range of positive outcomes, right across early childhood.

1. Stimulating activities: Activities such as reading, singing and telling stories, are all forms of interaction that can influence children’s development. We found studies showing positive effects on child language, numeracy, memory, exploration, and problem-solving, and some studies showed effects up to 15 months later.

What can you do: Read, talk, sing, walk, draw …

2. Sensory stimulation: Interactions such as massage or stimulation of movement, specifically in infants, can influence children’s physiology, as well as their cognition. Kangaroo-care (link) is a well-known application of the principles of proprioception (link), as are all sorts of motor ‘games’ with children (link to the book of games). Such sensory stimulation can raise oxytocin and lower heart rate (Field 2010).

What can you do: Touch, hold, massage, move …

3. Cognitive stimulation: Verbal stimulation can occur through caregivers making descriptive and reflective statements, as well as the familiar ‘who, what, where, when, why, and how’ questions. There are now hundreds of studies showing the positive effect of cognitive stimulation on children’s vocabulary, reading, and numeracy.

What can you do: Talk, question, scaffold, model, challenge …

4. Sensitive stimulation: When stimulating play is combined with caregiver sensitivity or warmth, then the interaction can enhance a child’s emotional regulation and psychological wellbeing. One study demonstrated positive effects of dads’ sensitive stimulation 16 years later (Grossmann et al., 2002)

What can you do: Encourage, entice, enthuse, challenge …

5. Integrated stimulation: When caregivers inspire children’s volition and competence in multiple demand contexts, such as novelty or difficulty either physically or psychologically, then children’s social and self-regulatory skills improve. For example, one series of studies shows that parents’ challenging interactions help prevent anxiety in children (e.g., Majdandžić et al., 2018). What can you do: Encourage, dare, tease, compete, assert, challenge…

What can you do: Encourage, dare, tease, compete, assert, challenge…

Our research shows that parents’ stimulating play is measurable, that it varies in complexity, and that it is positively linked to a broad range of child behaviour. In some new research, we are comparing mothers’ and fathers’ stimulating play and preliminary analyses show that mothers are more stimulating in the cognitive stimulation activities, whereas fathers score higher in sensory-stimulation, sensitive-stimulation and integrated stimulation interactions. And both parents’ stimulating interactions have great outcomes for children, even when their interactional style differs. The categorising of these types of stimulating play interactions may assist early child educators to confidently devise ways in which to challenge children’s cognitive, emotional and physical growth and that are representative of the broader family and caregiving system.


Jennifer StGeorge

Dr Jennifer StGeorge is Senior Lecturer in Family Studies at the University of Newcastle. Jennifer’s work in family research explores several related areas, including father engagement in human services, fathers’ role in child development, and parenting processes. She has a particular interest in using qualitative methodologies to explore personal and developmental aspects of family life. Jennifer’s PhD in music educational psychology was awarded in 2010, gaining a University and National Australian Society for Music Education Award. She teaches courses in family studies and qualitative research methods, is a registered trainer for NVivo (qualitative analysis software) and reviews journals in related fields.

5 thoughts on “Five ways with stimulating play”

    Manik says:

    What a great article – many parents instinctively utilise these strategies & so do educators. But it’s always refreshing to know that science backs up what we do.
    It’s also important to note that these experiences do not need any expensive resources but needs quality time spent with children in an engaging way

    gurdeep says:

    Very informative article to refresh the minds of educators and parents to engage and stimulate the senses of the children in early age.

    Louise says:

    And in a female dominated field like early childhood care and education, women need to be more aware of all these aspects of stimulation and interaction, including risky play. It does leave me pondering if there is an intangible something that comes from play with dads that can’t be replicated by female carers? IS any research being done into that?

    Louise Fitzpatrick Leach says:

    good point.

    Louise Fitzpatrick Leach says:

    Sorry, this was a response to Manik’s point about needing engagement and not expensive resources.

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