Everyone knows that children love to play - it's what they do to pass the time and have fun. But playing is also extremely important for their physical, emotional and mental development and certain games will help to enhance the manner and speed in which they grow.
Dr David Carey is a Dublin-based child psychologist. He says children should be encouraged to engage in games from a very early age as the concepts they learn at this stage will be beneficial later in life.
"Play is the work of childhood and it's through play that children learn to learn," he says. "They learn about concepts that will be transformed into academic skills such as shape, texture, gravity and categorisation.
"Play helps to stimulate mathematical knowledge, language development, social and emotional intelligence and teaches how to control fine and gross motor skills."
According to Dr Carey, different games are suitable for different ages. For example, babies need language stimulation so playing sound games with them is important. Rhyming games will encourage the development of reading skills later in childhood. While playing with shapes is good for young children, sorting and counting games are very beneficial for older children.
"There is no need to push children to read and write," he advises. "The human brain is ready to acquire those skills around age seven. While children are young, let them play, play with them, help them learn how to take turns, wait for their turn and cope with losing."
Play on the Brain was the theme of Early Childhood Ireland's annual conference earlier this month and CEO Teresa Heeney believes the words of Albert Einstein - 'play is the highest form of research'.
"Children are naturally wired for play," she says. "It's in their DNA and from the moment they are born, children are driven to engage with others and to make sense of their world through play.
"While some parents will say, 'you are what you eat', we at Early Childhood Ireland (ECI) would add 'you are what you play' as this is what helps children come into their community. In a child's first two years, neurons are connecting at a more rapid rate than during the rest of life - so impressions at this stage are formative for a baby's entire future."
Birth to three months:
* It is crucial that an infant’s outreaching coos and gurgles meets a heartfelt response from parent or carer, because our feedback brings out further ‘conversation’ from the baby. So put away those mobile phones, and talk or sing to your babies at every opportunity.
* Throughout the ages, music has been known to affect moods and help sensory development. Babies love music of various genres, particularly calm, soothing melodies. They can also learn to recognise tunes and will react accordingly to how it makes them feel.
* Show and tell. While your infant may not be aware of what exactly you are showing him, he will be mesmerised by the shape, sound and feel of different objects. So whatever you are doing throughout the day, show him what it is, what sound it makes and what it feels like. It is a simple, fun exercise which is both entertaining and educational for your baby.
Four to seven months:
* Your baby is developing at a rapid rate now and is interested in everything — particularly what you are doing. Keep a set of pots and plastic spoons so your baby can cook and stir along with you (this will most likely involve banging and throwing, but he will be having fun and learning at the same time).
* Anticipation is always exciting and your baby is now able to enjoy games which involve tickles. Incy Wincy Spider and This Little Piggy teach young babies about repetition and also the anticipation of waiting for the fun at the end of the game.
Eight to twelve months:
* Your baby is now almost at the toddler stage and will be pulling himself up and trying to get active. Keep a box or cupboard full of safe items which he can pull out and sort through. Invariably things will be tasted, walloped and thrown but this is all part of the learning process and you can sit with him and teach him the names and colours of the objects.
* This is a stage when your baby will do a lot of mimicking so make noises or gestures and he will follow suit. This is not only great fun for both of you, but it is also very beneficial for cognitive development.
Over a year:
* You can’t beat natural materials like water and sand and using the great outdoors in terms of the best playground for a child’s development. The foundation of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills is laid in the early years, with budding engineers learning their craft through building, pouring and measuring.
* Small world play such as introducing a box of animals onto a strip of grass under a hedge outside can be the making of a deep play experience.
* As they get older children will naturally play out the scenarios they know — mammies and daddies, doctor, builder or shopkeeper. They are great mimics, sometimes embarrassingly so for the parents.