I’m sure you should know by now, I’m an advocate for children. As an their advocate, I promote PLAY. Below is an overview on PLAY noting the stages and types of play plus highlighting some of the benefits children receive from play.
Play is fundamental to childhood and is critical to a child’s healthy and optimal development. You might think play is play, but you’ll see there are different stages of play children progress through–stages that build upon each other—and types of play children hopefully can experience first-hand…and hands-on!
Ages & Stages Play:
A child goes through many stages of play. Babies begin play, by in large, by entertaining themselves–or being entertained by Mom or Dad. An important aspect of this pre-play stage is unoccupied behavior. The first formal stage of play is solitary play where a child plays alone and independently with toys that are different from those used by and not influence by other kidlets nearby. Solitary play can last upwards to age 2 years. Onlooker or spectator play can be a fairly short stage between age 2 to 2 1/2 years or last up to age 3. As the name suggests, children are more interested in observing other children playing, perhaps talking about the play, than engaging with any toys themselves. Next in the stages of play is parallel play where toddlers will engage with toys playing side by side, but not with each other. Then as they enter the preschool years, around 3 years old, they move into the associative play stage. Here children often will still play independently but mimic, or follow along what a child is doing. For example, a group of children could be building towers of blocks together, perhaps even sharing some blocks, but each focused on their own (teetering) block tower. Finally, usually by their 5th year, cooperative play develops. Communication and interpersonal skills are used in cooperative play as children interact together, planning and directing, for the purpose of play…many times quite elaborate play.
All children will go through the stages of play listed above, but they may not go through them at the same rate. For parents of children 2yrs and under—relax! Let them play with you or by themselves. That’s the extent of their ability to ‘play’ at this time. If your 3yr old child is ready for preschool (s)he may thoroughly enjoy making new friends and playing alongside them. They may or may not remember these ‘new’ friends’ names and the friends can change from day to day! By the time your child is 4 or 5 yrs old they will most likely look forward to interacting with their classmates in preschool and perhaps ask for friends to come play afterschool. Parents remember to honor your child’s own unique development, but if you feel your child has fallen off their developmental curve have them evaluated by their pediatrician.
Motor: This probably is the type of play the comes to most peoples’ minds…the images of young children at play in parks, at schools or in their backyards running, jumping, climbing, using slides, swings and using their bodies to explore their outside world. Motor play gives children the chance to develop both gross and fine muscle strength as well as coordination and proprioception. Research has confirmed the critical link between stimulating activity and brain development; children must engage in motor play—in fact, some age-appropriate ‘risky’ play is essential.
Social: Human beings are social creatures. We need human contact. But to be able to interact and get along with each other requires a lot of exposure to others and practice, practice, practice of fledgling people skills. Interacting with other children in play settings allows them to experience cooperation, sharing, social boundaries/rules, and develop empathy which lays the foundation for forming friendships and a sense of belonging or community.
Constructive: Wooden blocks and sandboxes are standard fare for preschools and it’s no wonder—they’re key to constructive play where children can experiment; find out combinations that work and don’t work; and learn basic knowledge. Constructive play gives children the opportunity to tryout and about stacking (spatial intelligence), building (points of view: plan or elevation views), drawing (perspective, shading), making music (frequency, rhythm) and constructing (putting components together). It also gives children a sense of accomplishment and empowers them with control of their environment.
Pretend Play: Pretend play emerges around 2.5 to 3years of age. Pretend play, or make-believe play, encompasses the acting out of stories which involve multiple perspectives and manipulations of ideas and emotions. Its importance cannot be overstated. With pretend play children can try out new roles and possible situations or settings, and to experiment with language and emotions and/or problem solving. This helps children move from concrete thinking to more abstract thinking. It helps children think outside the box; learn to create beyond the here and now; stretch their imaginations, use new words and word combinations all in a risk-free environment. With our technological society, the ability to think outside the box is a hallmark of creativity which leads to innovation and invention—characteristics that are highly valued and valuable.
Additionally, pretend play allows children to deal with their emotions —both positive and negative feelings —reducing aggression, developing politeness and empathy…in other words, self-regulating their behavior. As children role-play they are given time to practice, practice, practice social skills like communication…not just talking, but listening and hearing what others are saying or feeling which helps them to develop empathy.
Games with Rules: Babies and young children are egocentric by nature. It takes time for them to realize they aren’t the center of the universe. Games like Simon Says and Follow the Leader or board games like Candyland and Chutes & Ladders help them understand that the game cannot function without everyone adhering to the same set of rules. Learning this concept that there are rules to follow will carry over to The ‘Game of Life’ (versus Milton Bradley’s The Game of Life) which has social rules (laws) that must be followed for society to function well.
Free play vs Structured play:
Free play is a type of play that is unplanned and hence the reason why it can also be termed ‘spontaneous play’ or ‘unstructured play’. ‘Child-initiated play’ is also another term used; note this type play can develop a framework or structure, but only by the child or children who initiated it. Structured play is a type of play that is goal/objective-based and generally has an inherent structure as to how it should be carried out. Structured play can also be termed as ‘adult-directed’ with the increase of adult involvement in children’s play.
There is debate over whether free play or structured play is better. Without a doubt a child that’s been accustomed to either type would feel at odds put into a situation where the other mode ruled. The appropriate ratio of free play to structured play most likely will be different from family to family. But without putting on specific amounts of each, it should be obvious children need both kinds. Below are some pros and cons of free play and structured play and, as you can readily see, if a child was subjected to just one (s)he would not be well-rounded.
Pros of Free Play: Children can…
1. set their own goals
2. concentrate for longer periods when activities are self-chosen
3. are more likely to be creative
4. take responsibility for their own projects
5. develop self-reliance
6. take as much time as they want to master skills
Pros of Structured Play: Children can…
1. get through any set curriculum
2. obtain specific learning objectives
Cons of Free Play: Children may not…
1. choose to interact with other children in cooperative play
2. be challenging enough, too repetitive
3. be as easy to break stereotypes
4. be able to cope with such a wide range of choices
5. develop a range of skills
6. have learning disabilities recognized early
Cons of Structured Play: Children may not…
1. have as long an attention span
2. feel successful if adults goals are unrealistic
3. have sufficiently challenging or creative activities ie, fill-in-the-blanks, dittos to color.
With this overview on PLAY you see that PLAY, in all its various forms throughout childhood, and probably beyond, is critical. Play provides children with opportunities to:
interact with their physical and social worlds.
Through PLAY, children practice, practice, practice skills they’ll need—experiencing and developing self-regulation, problem-solving abilities, language and physical/motor skills, cognition and social–emotional competencies.
I’m asking you to: Trust in play!
Yours in Play!