While tablets, laptops and smartphones conveniently offer children a big boost in education basics like reading and math, offline playtime can have as many benefits as "virtual" learning games.

When it comes to learning, the material world is still valuable. Spatial thinking, or “3-D thinking,” is especially effective for strengthening the roots of higher level learning in very young children. Researchers at the University of Washington concluded that children between 1½ and 2½ years old who played with letter blocks gained valuable language development. In the 2012 study, Effect of Block Play on Language Acquisition and Attention in Toddlers, children who were given blocks to play with had significantly higher language scores at the conclusion of the study than those who didn’t.

Michelle Garrison, Ph.D., one of the authors of the study, says there are multiple reasons why playing with tangible toys improves language ability. "Parents talk to their children less when a screen device is on, which means that exposure to language can be decreased." she says. "There's also some reason to believe that screen media may take up so much of a child's attention that they may not listen, look at the parent and respond to a parent's language to the same degree that they would during play with tangible objects."

In a related study published in 2011 in the journal Mind, Brain, and Education, researchers found that when parents and children played with blocks together, adults frequently used words such as "over" and "around,” which reinforced crucial spatial skills, a building block to later math success.

To strike a balance between virtual and real-world playtime, keep these simple things in mind:

  • Stop stressing. As a parent, you feel an enormous amount of pressure to keep up with the latest gadgets. It's natural to worry—is my child missing out? Know that it's okay to take the tech down a notch, especially in the earliest years. Time spent away from gadgets and gizmos is valuable, and it lays the groundwork for later success.
  • Parent participation. To make free play as interesting as a favorite app, parents need to join in the fun. Get down on the floor with your kid and a bunch of blocks. Be imaginative and silly by making up games or speaking in funny voices. When adults and children play together, key cognitive concepts are reinforced.
  • Enrich the environment. Fill your child's world with interesting objects and playthings that don't buzz, beep or need to be turned on. Simple wooden blocks, cups and bowls that fit inside each other, and puzzles to piece together—it's all good. These low-tech activities help your child develop early cognitive abilities that are necessary for proficiency in language and reasoning. Memory and object permanence—the understanding that objects exist when you can’t see them—are two such skills.
  • Understand the work of play. Free-form play isn’t wasted time. Parents can become impatient when a child rejects an expensive new tech toy in favor of playing with the cardboard box it came in. Understand that little minds are hard at work developing essential mental skills as they push that box around and climb in and out of it—skills that will lead to academic excellence later on.
  • Keep free play free. Participating in playtime doesn't mean that you have to hover or direct every moment. In open-ended play, there isn’t one right answer—there's only discovery. Talk to your toddler, but don't take over. Let your little one take the lead as he exercises his emerging language and develops a heightened awareness of the real world.

Remember, when you share a moment with your child that has no on or off button, you may not be able to measure his progress right away, but the possibilities for learning are endless and the benefits are real. With no "right" button to push, and no beginning or end to your time together, playtime is a never-ending story.