This article appears in the 2017 October Family magazine.

As director of the Cornell Infant Studies Lab, Marianella Casasola gets an up-close, hands-on look at how infants and young children develop spatial skills and language acquisition. It’s brainy work but enjoyable, too.

Her latest effort is exploring how playtime could help your preschooler perform better in math and science.

“For this study, we played with children. It was one of the most fun studies I’ve ever done,” said Casasola, associate professor of human development and a faculty fellow of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research in Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology.

Casasola is examining the benefits of constructive play — using blocks, puzzles and shapes — and how language through narration of activities affects cognitive development and spatial skills. When playing with preschoolers, Casasola and her team of adult students would either label or not label what they were doing. For example, putting a block “on top of” or “under” another block or “behind” or “in the corner.”

Playing and labeling what children were doing for short amounts of time, as little as 10 to 15 minutes, saw a significant benefit in children’s cognitive development and spatial skills, Casasola said. Studies show those with better spatial skills are more likely to flourish in STEM fields.

“Our goal is to not only understand how early spatial and language skills develop, but also how best to promote their development both at home and in the classroom,” she said.

“Children who both interacted and were narrated to saw at least a 30 percent increase in spatial gains over the group that still interacted with the same sorts of activities and games but did not have language incorporated into their play by an adult,” she said. “Both groups improved, but those who heard items being labeled and actions described showed significantly greater gains.”

For parents interested in trying this at home, Casasola has this advice: Get talking.

“Many people are surprised to hear that talking to infants really matters,” Casasola said. “The simple message is, remember to talk to your child. And have fun even (if) for only a few minutes of play.”