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Play – what’s it all about?

Play – what’s it all about?

romy kruger 1By Romy Kruger 

In the last few articles I have stressed the importance of getting down on the floor and playing with your child. Play is after all, the primary occupation of children but it is also so much more than that! In this article we will look at the various age appropriate stages of play and why playing is so important for your child’s development.

Play is considered a developmental phenomenon contributing to a child’s growth. It is an experience, or state of mind which gives a child’s life meaning. Play takes place within a child’s own environment and thus allows a child to playfully work through scenarios relevant to his or her own context.

The complexity of play increases as a child develops, however the opportunity to play, allows for richer development of many childhood skills.

Through the various stages of play, the following skills develop:

  • Language Development
  • Physical Development
  • Emotional Development
  • Social Development
  • Cognitive/Intellectual Development

It is through play that a child begins to understand the world around him. He begins to understand cause and effect and the impact that he can have over his environment and within social interactions. The child learns how to come up with ideas based on what is available to him, how to plan these ideas and then how to use his body to execute these plans. This is a process referred to as praxis and will be explained further in a later article.

Parten came up with the 5 stages of play. The general theory is that as a child develops and matures, he moves from one stage to the next. There has been some argument as to whether this happens within specific age limits, as of course every child is unique.

5 Stages of Play

  •  Solitary Play: This is between 0-2 years of age. A child is generally not that interested in other children and content to play on his own whilst exploring the toys presented to him. This is a good opportunity to sit with your child, developing his language and turn taking skills so that he is ready to move into more complex forms of play as he grows up.
  • Onlooker Play: Between 2-2.5 years a child begins to become aware of the children playing around him. He will generally simply observe them, not moving to join or imitate them. This is a good time to explain to your child what others are doing. By commenting on another child’s actions, you are helping your own child to pair language with movement as well what they may need to do, in their own body, to generate the same outcome. For example, “look at that little boy kicking the ball into the bushes”.
  • Parallel Play: Between 2.5-3 years of age a child will begin to move towards other children, simply playing next to them, rather than with them. This is a common scene in the first few years of pre-school where the classroom is filled with clusters of children playing alongside each other and not really interacting more than snatching toys away from one another.
  • Associative Play: Around the 3-4 year mark children begin to play with one another. It is generally not in a coordinated fashion but rather they will play with the same toys, performing similar actions but not really cooperating with one another. This is the stage in which friendships and common interests begin to occur. At this stage play is commonly in mixed sex groups. It is helpful to arrange playdates around common interests at this stage. For example, having a playdate at the park with a child who also loves to climb and swing, or with a friend who also enjoys playing with barbies/super heroes, so that the children can play with one another without having to really communicate and navigate their way through the social interaction. This only kicks in at about 4-6 years of age when they enter the next stage of play.
  • Co-operative Play: This is the final stage of play where you begin to see children truly playing with one another. Some level or organization begins to enter their play and the children strive to achieve a common goal. By this stage many of the skills needed for play have been consolidated, such as turn taking, communication, coming up with ideas, sharing toys and the child has a greater body awareness allowing for more complex planning of movement with one another and within the environment. Some adult mediation is at times still needed between children, however it is helpful to encourage the children to sort out their disagreements or conflicts. Play amongst peers acts as a microcosm for social interactions on a day to day basis within the child’s environment. It is thus essential that a child has a safe play environment to build up his skills, work through his anxieties and live out his fantasies and dreams with friends he can trust.

The value and importance of play cannot be stressed enough. Just as we work for a living, children play. This is the only time in their life where they are not only allowed to, but actually expected to play. As the parent it is up to us to ensure that your child is provided with enough play opportunities. Playtime should not be sacrificed to fit in every extra mural offered nor should it be replaced by technology for the sake of convenience. Let your child guide you through the stage of play in which he is in and you will be surprised by how much you enjoy it and how much you can learn from your child!