More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
The Power of Play
July 13, 2004,

From earliest infancy, play is the primary way children learn. Through play, children explore their bodies, their relationships with their parents and peers, and the world around them. An older baby who repeatedly drops a wooden block from his high chair is playing, but he's also an amateur researcher. How did the block sound hitting the floor? Is the sound the same on the carpet? Will mommy pick up the block? Will mommy frown or smile?

In addition to encouraging exploration and relationship development, play also helps children develop more subtle verbal and logical skills. Playing house, for example, reinforces the idea of the future tense and sequential thought, as the child says, "First I'll set the table, then we'll sit down to eat." Children's fantasy games let them explore new situations and model roles they have observed. If parents take an active part in their child's play, play can help build self-esteem. When a parent praises the stunning use of red in a toddler's picture or responds to a baby's cooing, kids learn that what they have to offer is interesting and entertaining to the larger world.

Developmentally Appropriate Play
How do you know if your child's play is on target for his age? One way to check is to compare your child's play to the developmental questions asked by your child's doctor at regular visits. Your child's doctor might ask if your child is playing peek-a-boo, pulling himself up in the crib, or reaching for a bright object when he's on the floor, for example.

Don't panic, however, if your child isn't exactly on schedule. Children develop at different rates. But if your baby hasn't reached a certain milestone - such as rolling over - you might lend a hand in helping your child to the next level of development.

"It may be that you're holding your child too often, or that there is nothing appealing for the baby to roll towards," notes Gail Loeb, Director of Community Outreach and Training at the Hall-Mercer Child and Parent Center at Pennsylvania Hospital. "As your child's favorite playmate, you might get down on the carpet eyeball to eyeball with your baby and play with him, showing him how to roll," says Loeb. "By taking an active part, a parent can help a child progress."

Stages of Play
As children grow physically and intellectually, they expand the limits of how they play. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget described the stages of play in 1962; they include:

Sensorimotor Play. In this kind of play, infants and toddlers experiment with bodily sensations and motor movements with both objects and people. At 6 months children have developed simple but consistent ways to make interesting things happen through trial and error. A baby may push a ball again and again simply to see it go. As children grow older and gain more motor skills, these simple actions are coordinated into more complicated play schemes. By 9 months, an infant will understand that as a result of his push, a ball rolls away.

At 18 months, children see the world in more symbolic terms and begin to understand the social function of objects. They might feed their teddy bears with a spoon or offer mom an invisible drink in a cup.

Symbolic Play. Dorothy Singer, a psychological research scientist at Yale University, calls the symbolic play period the "high season of play." Symbolic play is when children begin to substitute one object for another. For a 3- or 4-year-old toddler, a pillowcase becomes a superhero cape and the cardboard core of a roll of paper towels is used as a trumpet.

By age 4 or 5, a child's ideas and experiences with family and the social world provide material for games like 'house' or 'driving the car.' While some play is solitary or shared with adults, most symbolic play takes place with school peers or neighborhood buddies. Kids this age also adore construction play, building (with toys like Legos or blocks), and rough and tumble play (like ring-around-the-rosy).

Mastery. Mastery is when the child gains control of his body and actions. In its most pure form, mastery is a child in a swing, blissfully pumping away, in charge of his own body and its actions. But mastery can switch to make believe, says Singer. "In a second a child on the swing can imagine they're on rocketship or transformed into a butterfly." This child has the ability to fully control his body and also switch to more imaginative forms of play at the same time.

Games . By age 5, children become interested in formal games with rules or two or more sides, and explicit activities. Chess, checkers, Candyland, or Chutes and Ladders are popular game choices for this age group. This age group may also begin to be interested in sports and other physical activities with rules.

While parents don't need to write on a calendar when a child progresses from sensorimotor to symbolic play, they can be aware of their child's developmental stage and provide developmentally appropriate toys. For a 9- or 10-month-old baby fascinated by peek-a-boo, for example, a jack-in-the-box is probably a great buy, but a 3-year-old would quickly find it boring. Similarly, a 1-year- old wouldn't enjoy a puppet, whereas a 4-year-old would adore the chance to change voices and animate it. Many toy manufacturers indicate the appropriate age level for toys and games on the package; parents can use these suggestions as guidelines when purchasing.

Forms of Play
Depending on mood, development, situation, and personal preference, individual children play in different ways.

Parallel play, or children playing side by side without interaction, is the usual pattern employed by 2- or 3-year-olds. While a passing adult may think the two aren't playing together at all, separating the children might cause them to be very upset, notes Singer.

Periods of solitary play are important to every child. Singer notes that parents should be aware that a balance of social and solitary play is good for most children. If, however, a child only plays on his own, it could signal a problem. "All children benefit from the social learning of sharing and cooperating with other children during play," she says.

Group play is most appropriate for 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds. Developmentally, they are ready for nursery or preschool, since they are talking, using the potty, and able to wait in line, sit in a circle, and share with other children.

How Can Parents Help Kids Play?
Providing a safe, clear space for kids is the best way to encourage them to play, says Loeb. "A million toys aren't necessary," she adds. Expert suggestions for encouraging play include:
o Make the play area the child's domain. Childproof the area to allow maximum exploration without restrictions. Store building blocks or little cars in shoeboxes on a shelf at the child's height for easy access and cleanup.
o Rotate toys to keep children from getting bored with the selection, and avoid toys that do a child's imaginary work for him. Scaled-down adult objects are often the best toys for kids. Small hammers, screwdrivers, pots, pans, or telephones intrigue toddlers because they are "just like Mom's and Dad's." Building blocks allow a child to build anything he chooses. By providing a variety of playthings, you can help your child vary his play from simple to complex.
o Play with your children, especially during their early years. "Create a playful atmosphere," says Singer. "When you take a child to school, count the trucks that pass by. Or when you're dressing, name how many colors you can see." By responding to your child's play with encouragement, you will help him take pride in his play and motivate him to play more.
o Avoid overstimulating children, particularly babies. Babies will signal when they've had enough stimulation by crying or looking away. Also, be sure to choose playthings according to your child's age and abilities. Your child will feel helpless rather than challenged if you provide toys designed for an older and bigger child.
o Value your child's play. Adults often say, "I like the way you're working," but not, "I like the way you play."
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