We were interested to read recently about a project that is going on in the US to discover how children can acquire language, learning, spatial and social skills through interactive play - and it has emphasised just how important the simple act of talking to youngsters can be.
The Infant Language Project is being run at the University of Delaware and it regularly invites people from the vicinity with children aged from six months to six years old to participate.
Leader Roberta Golinkoff from the School of Education explained that the assistants play with the little ones to help them feel more comfortable, then show them a short video clip or game and monitor their eye movements.
It might sound simplistic, but the programme's research has found that words and pictures games can help to showcase early lapses in language development, while spatial play may boost maths skills later in life.
Play equals communication
Behind all this learning is the communication aspect, with children picking up new skills more easily when they are being played with in a constructive way because it makes the basic principles stick.
"Children need interaction. They learn best from humans," Ms Golinkoff said.
She underlined just how important it is to interact with children on a regular basis, especially when visiting places like the supermarket or pharmacy - and not to be tempted to let technological devices 'babysit'.
"If you give your kid an iPad in the supermarket as you're going around thinking it's going to make your task easier, you're not engaging with your child. You are missing golden opportunities to tell them about the variety of things out there in the world," she warned in an interview with the Delaware News Journal.
The downside of digital devices
Lab manager for the Infant Language Project Natalie Brezack also pointed out the dangers of breaking off from playtime to check devices like smartphones, something many parents will unwittingly be doing as they juggle work responsibilities with their home life.
For example, she explained that it takes children longer to learn new words if the teaching of them is being interrupted by texting.
Psychologist and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age Catherine Steiner-Adair agreed in an interview with NPR.
She said that when parents ignore their children in favour or digital technology, they could not only be limiting their cognitive development, but also doing them emotional harm.
"We are behaving in ways that certainly tell children they don't matter, they're not interesting to us, they're not as compelling as anybody, anything, any ping that may interrupt our time with them," she added.
Communication could mean bigger brains
It may seem strange to talk to an infant that does not yet seem to understand any of the words, but parents who make sure they do so regardless are more likely to be setting their youngsters up for a successful life.
Research has shown that babies' brains triple in size from birth to three years, while regular communication and interaction supports the creation of neurons that will become responsible for reading and deduction.
Furthermore, the greater the number of words little ones hear by age three, the better they tend to do at cognitive tests when they start school.
Top tips for boosting skills through play:
• Switch phones off and put them out of sight.
• Simple toys are best; building bricks will be more beneficial than video games and apps.
• Play anywhere and everywhere - even a trip to the park could be used for a 'how many [insert object here] can you spot?' game.
• Talking reiterates basic concepts, so explain or just narrate new things as they occur.
We might take talking for granted, but it really is essential for babies.