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The Magic of Play

PRESCHOOLERS (3 to 5 years)

How they play: Better language skills turn children this age into little storytellers; fantasy play and role-playing become more elaborate now that they can understand more complicated concepts such as time and the relationships between objects. Better motor skills means they can be more physical, learning to ride a trike or accurately throw and catch a ball.

These advances also help children play well with others. This is when many of them form first friendships.

Ways to support them: Choose preschools that favor play over academics. "Parents often get impatient with dress-up and blocks and want to know when their kids will move on to ABC's and 'useful stuff,'" Stamm says. "But free play's important -- it causes the brain to wire in a healthy way." A good preschool focuses on social and emotional needs over cognitive learning.

Find ways your child can play with other kids. Besides preschool and the playground, try the YMCA and library.

Limit screen time. There's no proof that computer games or "educational" videos make kids smarter. Don't worry that your child won't be computer literate -- she will.

Encourage creative play. Art and drama suit the kind of exploratory thinking that preschoolers are doing now.

Accept their obsessions. A deep focus on one activity means your child is mastering a skill or concept.

Don't worry about stereotyping. "Boys tend to spend more time with Legos and spatial-mechanical toys because their brains develop faster in this area," says Michael Gurian, author of Nurture the Nature. Girls, on the other hand, have better fine motor and language skills at this age, so they do more writing and pre-reading. One's not better than the other -- they're simply different.

Don't worry about preparing your child for kindergarten. "Kids aren't supposed to come to school reading and adding," says Stamm.

GRADE SCHOOL (5 and up)

How they play: Kids are all about friends now, especially those who share their budding interests and sensibilities. Expressing individuality becomes important, too. A more complex understanding of how the world works brings a preoccupation with rules and jokes.

Ways to support play:

Get them moving. The more sedentary kids are, the worse their numbers for blood pressure, cholesterol, and insulin, a 2006 study shows. Often a nudge from you is all it takes.

Regulate screen time. Even Wii-style games that get kids off the couch keep them from playthings like dolls or building sets, which affect their brains differently, says Gurian.

Don't overbook. Most kids do best with no more than three extracurricular activities: One social (like Scouting), one athletic (soccer), one artistic (piano lessons).

Ease into team sports. Organized games provide exercise but are adult-directed and involve little spontaneity. Most experts don't recommend them before age 5 or 6. Even then, keep participation to one sport per season and suggest different ones throughout the year.

Help your child to be well-rounded. Give him chances to explore a range of activities. Be wary of summer camps that turn play into work (like sports, computer, or academic ones).

Watch for red flags. Moodiness, nervousness about an activity, and making excuses not to go may be signs your child needs more free time.

At least once a week, play together as a family, whether you go for walks or tell stories.

I admit that I still feel a guilty pang on a Saturday when not one of my four kids has a lesson or outing slated. Should I take them to a museum? Lead them on a hike? Sometimes I do. But more often I sip my tea and relax, knowing that hanging out together reading, or letting them muck around in the yard, or whatever else they'll think up next, is just what their bodies and brains need most.

Paula Spencer is coauthor, with Jill Stamm, Ph.D., of Bright From the Start.