“Play” is one of those things that gets talked about a lot in child development circles and on social media.
You might hear about the benefits of play-based learning, or how giving kids more recess will improve their school behavior and learning abilities, or how there are sensory benefits to encouraging kids to play in and explore nature.
I think most people would agree that play is a fundamental component of childhood that carries a variety of developmental and educational benefits.
But what types of play are expected throughout the various stages of childhood and adolescence?
DEVELOPMENTAL PROGRESSION OF PLAY SKILLS
Infancy and Toddlerhood — Sensorimotor Play
“Sensorimotor play” is characterized by exploring sensations and movements, and it tends to dominate the first two years of life. This type of play was referred to as “practice games” by Piaget, which means the actions are done purely for the pleasure of practicing them, without make-believe or rule-based components (this type of play occurs throughout childhood as new skills are practiced and learned as well). Think of a baby who discovers that her own toes make great chew toys, a crawler who finds that the dog’s water bowl is more fun than any light-up toy, or a toddler who loves to stomp in any and all nearby puddles because it’s just that fun. This stage of play also includes activities like peekaboo, chase, imitating caregivers, dropping or throwing objects, and dumping things out of containers and putting them back in (aka- “container play”)…that’s what the Tupperware drawer is for, right?
“Pretend play” involves using realistic props to act out basic actions, and it tends to appear around 12 months of age. When you see your one-year-old pretend to drink from an actual cup or pretend to feed a baby doll with a spoon, you’ve got yourself a front row seat to some great, basic pretend play.
“Solitary play” is typically present during the first two years, and occurs when children are in each other’s presence, but they engage in their own independent activity with their own materials and don’t necessarily demonstrate interest or awareness of each other’s play activities. While it’s not a “bad” thing for kids to engage in solitary play beyond age two (hey, we all need our alone time in life!), it’s expected that kids will eventually transition out of solitary play activities and into more socially-based play experiences as they enter preschool and beyond.
People involved in the Sensorimotor Play stage of development typically include the young child’s parents/caregivers and immediate family.
The Preschool Years — Symbolic and Simple Constructive Play
“Symbolic play” means the child is now able to use an unrealistic or invisible prop as part of their pretend play, and this tends to appear around 24 months of age. Think of a little one who pretends to pour her mommy coffee out of an invisible coffee pot, into an invisible cup, and then insists mommy drink the invisible coffee and tell her how good it is. Or think of a toddler who picks up a spoon and then pretends to play it like a flute. That’s symbolic play. Symbolic play tends to grow in complexity throughout the preschool years, often evolving into longer sequences and scenes that involve peers (or unwitting younger siblings who get used as props!). This is why the preschool years are often referred to as the “golden age of creativity”! Though pure symbolic play tends to take a backseat as children mature and begin to engage in more concrete types of play, it’s possible that imagination, creativity, and fantasy later in life are really just more “grown up” ways of expressing symbolic play (isn’t that cool?).
“Simple construction” tends to emerge as symbolic play skills develop, allowing preschoolers to use materials to construct basic figures that represent different objects such as using wooden blocks to build a pretend “bridge” or “garage.” As a Pediatric Occupational Therapist, I love this phase of development because kids can begin to demonstrate their exploding creativity and symbolic cognitive skills through the use of more refined fine motor skills during activities like building with blocks!
During the preschool years, a shift from solitary play to parallel play typically occurs, between 2 to 4 years of age. This means children may be playing side by side and there will be little to no interaction between them, but you may see them imitate each other. For example, one preschooler may go get some pretend food from the pretend kitchen and put it a basket. The other preschooler may observe this and imitate her, getting her own pretend food and putting it in her own basket (and maybe even trying to grab some of her friend’s food in the process because, hey, she’s two!) as she continues to play on her own. The two kiddos may not necessarily interact or “play together”, but they are becoming aware of what the other is doing nearby.
People involved in the Symbolic Play stage of development typically include the preschooler’s child’s parents/caregivers, peers, and other adults.
The Early Elementary Years — Dramatic and Complex Constructive Play
Play becomes more social during this time, and you’ll often see a shift from parallel play to associative play during the period of 4 to 7 years of age. This means kids are “associating” with each other as part of an activity that requires some type of sharing (such as shared materials). You could think of a group of 4-5 year olds who are engaging in free play time after lunch, and who are all working from the same big bucket of wooden blocks, cars, or Potato Head parts. During the phase of associative play, kids may be interested in each other and may share materials (and probably fight over them at times), but they aren’t necessarily coordinating their play with their friends (e.g., they aren’t coordinating their efforts to build a tall tower together).
In addition to becoming more socially oriented in their play, kids in this age range tend to use their improved fine motor skills to build more realistic constructions (such as building all those crazy LEGO kits!). They also have a tendency to become more dramatically-inclined in their role playing, story telling, and risk-taking (scooters and skateboards, anyone?).
People involved in the Dramatic Play stage of development typically include the child’s peer group (a small handful of friends), “imaginary friends”, parents/caregivers, immediate family, and other adults.
The Later Elementary Years — Play Including Games
Take a look on any elementary school playground, and you’ll see that games with rules tend to dominate play during the mid- to late-elementary years. Rules can be “official” (such as a game like Checkers or Four Square) or they can be “unofficially” made up in-the-moment (such as with variations on games like tag or basketball). Kids become fascinated — almost obsessed — with rules during this stage. It probably comes as no surprise that this tendency toward rules (both “official” and “unofficial”) stays with many of us through adolescence and adulthood.
The shift from associative play to cooperative play occurs during this stage of 7-12 years of age, allowing kids to work together to achieve an outcome in a structured or organized activity. Kids becomes interested in both their peers as well as the activity their peers are doing. Can you see how the importance of “rules” and “roles” comes into play here as kids transition into more cooperation-based activities? This would include activities like pretending to “play school” together, working together on a school project, and playing organized sports. During this time of developing cooperation, kids also may begin to demonstrate more interest in belonging to a formal “group” such as a sports team, dance troupe, or boy/girl scouts group.
People involved in the Game Play stage of development typically include a same-sex peer group, organized groups (e.g., team, troupe), parents/caregivers, and other adults.
The Adolescent Years — Recreation
If you’ve ever been around a teenager, then you know that the importance of cooperation, teamwork, rules, roles, and formal peer groups continues to grow during adolescence, especially from 12-16 years of age. An increased emphasis is placed on challenging one’s skills as well as in participating in service clubs/projects. Construction projects become even more realistic as they require more complex hand skills (Woodshop or Ceramics class, anyone?).
However, in addition to the growing emphasis on rules and roles during adolescence, there also comes an increased interest in hobbies and recreation. Teens may explore hobbies that challenge their current abilities or that expose them to new ones, such as surfing, skiing, dancing, singing, collecting, etc.
People involved in the Recreation stage of development typically include the adolescent’s peer group of same and opposite sex, parents/caregivers and other adults.
HOW PLAY RELATES TO OCCUPATIONAL THERAPY
Play is a HUGE part of what we do as pediatric therapists! Some colleagues of mine have put together some helpful info for you to learn more about how play and pediatric therapy go hand-in-hand. This is Month Three of our monthly “Functional Skills for Kids” series, so check ’em out!
Building Fine Motor Skills Through Play | Sugar Aunts
Gross Motor Skills and the Development of Play in Children | Your Therapy Source
Playing with Friends: Supporting Social Skills in Play | Kids Play Space
Using Play to Increase Attention | Miss Jaime OT
Help! My Child Won’t Play – Adapting Play for Individual Kids | Growing Hands-On Kids
How Play Makes Therapy Better | Therapy Fun Zone
How the Environment Shapes the Way Kids Play | The Inspired Treehouse
Why is My Child “Just Playing” When They See an OT? | Your Kids OT
Bryze, K.C. (2008). Narrative contributions to the play history. In L. Diane Parham and Linda S. Fazio (Eds.), Play in occupational therapy for children. St. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsevier.
Parham, L.D. (2008). Play and occupational therapy. In L. Diane Parham and Linda S. Fazio (Eds.), Play in occupational therapy for children. St. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsevier.
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