Pablo Neruda once wrote, “A child who does not play is not a child.”
Playing isn’t just for fun. Did you know it is a massive part of children’s learning and development? By playing, children can practice and develop all the skills they’ll need as they grow up. It allows children the freedom to explore their environment, mastering skills at their own pace, experimenting to figure things out on their own. There are several stages of play and how it features as your child progresses from baby to toddler to preschooler and beyond.
Key Characteristics of Play:
- Must be self chosen and self directed.
- Should be voluntary.
- Should be meaningful to the participants.
- Play is fun.
- Should be spontaneous, flexible, creative.
- Play offers the ability for children to explore in a low risk environment.
As children develop, their play evolves too. Children pass through these stages as they grow, becoming capable of more interactive play as they develop. There are several types of play that children will progress through during their development. It is important to keep in mind that at any age, a child’s play may reflect an earlier stage. Children enjoy play. Remember, there is no “right way” or “wrong way” to play.
Unoccupied play is most commonly demonstrated in babies. In the early months of infancy, from birth to about three months ( yup, that young! ) your child is busy in unoccupied play. Babies seem to be making random movements and noises with no clear purpose, but this is the initial form of playing.
Everything is brand spanking new to them and they are trying to understand the world around them. Whilst the baby tends to stay in one place and makes seemingly random movements and gestures with no real objective. These movements are an attempt to learn about and move within their environment. Despite seeming like this is not a stage of play it is as it is setting the stage for future play exploration.
At this stage, dont worry too much about organizing anything special. Even the simplest household object is full of wonder because they have never seen it before.
- Textured fabric books.
- Placing baby on an Activity mat.
- Tummy Time.
- Its never to early to sing songs and read books!
Independent & Solitary Play
From birth to about the age of 2, most children engage in independent/ solitary play. Playing independently, with very limited interaction with other children or adults.
This is an incredibly important stage. As many adults know, you can’t bond properly to new people if you aren’t comfortable by yourself. Starting to encourage this behavior young will definitely make your life easier as they grow. As well as giving them the ability to be content with their own discovery will serve them well throughout life.
- Toddler-safe books ( especially interactive ones )
- Play Kitchens, train sets, dolls house and other imaginative toys.
- I won’t lie, you could give them a cardboard box and the possibilities are endless!
Spectator or Onlooker Play
From 2 to about 2 1/2 years. So much of this play stage is inactive, but it’s still significant. Children may begin to stop and look at other children playing around them, but still will not voluntarily engage in play with them. The ability to play with other kids is crucial to getting along in social settings. This is your baby’s first stop in learning how.
- Taking your little one to a park/soft play/ tumble tots where there are other kids. See what they do and how they play!
- Do daily tasks with your child. Washing, gardening, cleaning etc and get them to help out.
From about 2 1/2 to 3 years old, children will play side by side next to each other, but still not directly engage in playing together, even if sharing from the same pool of materials. Remember, learning to play is learning how to relate to others. In that sense, parallel play is that final stage before your child connects with another.
- Sticker/colouring books
- Building forts
- Stacking blocks
Part of the importance of preschool is the next two stages of play. From about 3 to 4 years of age, children begin to engage in Associate Play. For example, they begin to interact with their peers, demonstrating some co-operation, forming early friendships and even developing preferences for playing with some children over others. Play is often in small groups, with no definite rules or designated roles. Play at this stage is normally in groups of mixed gender.
Now is a great time to introduce more art supplies to your craft stash, particularly the mess-proof kind! Around age 3, kids generally become more capable of handling small toys, and can be better trusted with Lego sets etc.
- Lego or other building sets
- Bump up the art supplies
- Games such as snap
The final stage of play is typically reached between 4 and 6 years of age. Children will play with the express aim of playing together, supporting others in their play, working together for a common goal or project, with assigned roles for group members. Team work!! It’s an incredibly liberating and exciting step for every family. As children approach school age, these groups often become more segregated by gender.
- Swing/slide sets
- Balls & outdoor games
- Board games/kits for that age group
Playtime for children accomplishes some serious goals: cognitively, socially, and physically. Ensuring that there’s unstructured time to explore is vital to your child’s development, as well as to building a parent-child relationship.
Get involved as much as you can when your child’s playing. Get messy, laugh, be silly and have fun! After all, you were a kid once, too.
What a brilliant opportunity to remember what that felt like!