Play. This word might seem inconsequential to some, but for the developing child, play is absolutely essential.
For many adults, we equate play with relaxing. As in, “First we do our work, and then we get to play.“, or “I don’t understand how he can be so tired- we did nothing but play all day!“. What many don’t realize is that play IS the work. Play is how children experience the world around them, master new concepts, utilize their sensory systems, and socialize with others. Research shows that children learn best through discovery and exploration using all of their senses. When young children are playing, they are actually learning to learn. So what you see your 18 month old doing with a bin of blocks is way more than just having fun. She is building the foundation to be a life-long learner!
Just like gross motor skills or language skills, play skills develop in phases. According to Cari Ebert, MS, CCC-SLP, we see play skills develop in this order:
1.Random and Exploratory Play
In this phase, kids are picking up objects, banging them, mouthing them, holding them, and throwing them. This phase is all about taking in how things feel, and how objects relate to your body in space.
2. Cause and Effect Play
Now, children start to figure out that their actions can lead to an outcome. If I press the button, a light turns on. If I say “ba”, my mommy blows bubbles. If I push the block tower, all the blocks fall down. Cause and effect is the foundation of all other play, because it is the beginning of playing with a plan.
3. Functional Play
In this stage, children begin to play with the functions of objects. They are able to think about the concept of an object, and this directs their play. Children will start to push cars along a road or stir with a spoon which shows that they are applying previously learned knowledge into their play. How cool is that?!
4. Symbolic Play
Once functional play is mastered, a child is now able to think about objects that are not in the room. A plain wooden block can turn into a helicopter and a throw pillow can be a dog to take on a walk. This phase is so fun because the sky is the limit! Your child can now pull any fun idea into his play schema.
5. Constructive Play
At this point, kids will start to use their imagination and previous experiences to create. You might catch your kiddo building houses, skyscrapers, castles or even whole cities! Constructive play also involves building a play space, so you might see your child designate different materials to represent parts of an idea. For example, this pile of leaves is my bed and this pine cone is my alarm clock, and that tree over there is my mom’s bedroom. Kids in this phase may spend just as much time setting up their play as they actually do playing!
6. Dramatic Play
This is where the fun really begins! This is the phase in which they put it all together. Kids use their experiences, imaginations, fears, daydreams and emotions to orchestrate elaborate play schemas that may involve many different toys and materials, or no materials at all. This is the phase where collaborative play with friends really takes off too. Kids in this phase create their own storyline, and use their play as an avenue to explore all kinds of concepts and ideas. As their language skills expand, their dramatic play will too.
It is really important to consider the play phase that a child is in, rather than his chronological age. I advise parents to ignore that recommended ages on toys, and to focus more what what skills their child currently has. There is no need to rush the developmental process because we want a solid, strong foundation to build upon later.
Don’t succumb to the notion that young children need heavy academics and a rigorous schedule of extra-curricular activities to thrive! I’d actually argue just the opposite- kids need ample time carved out in each day that is dedicated completely to “just playing”. The most powerful learning experiences can come wrapped up in the simplest of packages.
Elizabeth Clark McKenzie, MS, CCC-SLP