It’s that time of year again to shop for toys. Everywhere you look are new advertisements for the latest and greatest toys for this holiday season. I talked about the best toys to get for preschoolers from a speech therapy perspective. Check it out here. I thought it might be a good time to talk about play. Once you understand that different stages and types of play, you will be better able to evaluate whether a toy is going to be good for your child’s development.
An American sociologist, Mildred Parten Newhall, researched the play of children and came up with 6 different stages of play. Children of all ages play, and they generally go through the same developmental stages of play. As research keeps proving, play is an extremely important part of learning for a child. All the stages keep building on the next. You don’t suddenly stop one stage never to do it again. They all serve a purpose that continues throughout childhood.
Parten’s 6 Stages of Play
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1. Unoccupied Play
This stage happens from Birth to 3 months. The child is making a lot of movement and sounds as they figure out how their body works. The play mats with hanging rings help the child learn to move his hands and feet on purpose. Tummy time also helps with neck strength. Rattles help hands develop the ability to grasp. Mirrors are a great toy for this stage of play.
2. Solitary Play
From Birth to 2 years of age, children prefer to play by themselves. Their world revolves around them, so their focus is on themselves at this time. Their skills are still motor and speech skills are still developing, and they are learning to entertain themselves. This is the stage where they like to dump and fill things up. The simplest thing to have around is a basket or some pots to fill with things. Shape sorters and blocks are a great toys to work on problem solving and fine motor skills. Stay away from toys that need batteries. Children don’t need the extra bells and whistles for play.
3. Onlooker Play
Around 2 years of age, children will start to watch other children play and learn from them. This happens most often with children who are shy. They watch to figure out what is expected of them. They may even ask a question or two, but they don’t join the play just yet. You will see this often on play dates and at the neighborhood playground. Let your child hang back at first and watch what is happening.
4. Parallel Play
Children will play next to each other but not with each other from around 2 years to 3 years of age. They may be playing close together, but they are not playing together. They know the other child is there, but they aren’t ready for the most complex stages of play just yet. Toys like cars, farm sets or doll houses are great for this stage of play.
5. Associative Play
At around 3 to 4 years of age, children begin to start interacting with peers. They may play with the same toy like blocks, but they are all doing something different with the blocks. If the goal is to build a tower, there are no rules or structure to the play. They are getting ready for being able to get along with a group.
6. Cooperative (Social) Play
Finally around 4 years of age, children begin to play together and work on a common goal in their play like building the same tower out of blocks. They play games with rules. They practice problem solving, cooperating, taking turns, and compromising. Some great games are in this post here. Early games like Candy Land, Sneaky Squirrel, and Zingo are fun to introduce at this age. “Hide and Go Seek” and “Tag” are great games as well.
Once you have figured out the stage of play development your child is you, you can see what type of play your child prefers. This is really helpful for picking out a gift for kids. If you spend time with a preschooler, you will probably come across different types of play. Each type helps the child work on a different part of the brain to help it develop. Some kids prefer one type over the others. You might want to help your child with a different type of play or let them focus on the type that really makes them learn and have fun.
4 Categories of Play
1. Functional Play
Functional play is the type of play that help children learn about new things. Think of sensory bins and sand boxes. They use their senses to learn about what they see, feel, hears, smell, and taste. They learn about the new object while they play with it.
2. Constructive Play
This play focuses on building something. They build a castle out of blocks or sand. They use problem solving skills to make something with the materials they have, and they can get really creative. Kinetic sand, blocks, and play-dough are great toys for this type of play. There’s a ton of great recipes on Pinterest for home-made play dough. Check out my boards here.
3. Pretend or Dramatic Play
This type of play focuses more on the individuals playing and not on the actual toys. This is the play where they act out different roles and situations. They pretend to be a parent and feed the baby or a firefighter and put out a fire. Baby dolls and dress-up clothes are perfect. Play kitchens are excellent for pretend play fun.
4. Games with Rules
The games with rules are such a big part of childhood. You learn such important things like waiting your turn, cheating to win, learning to be a good sport if you lose. This is also the type of game where tattling might happen. You can walk into any store and there is always an aisle dedicated to games with rules. Let’s Go Fishing, Memory, and Hungry Hippos are classics.
5. Physical Play
Think riding a bike or using scooter. This is where the child uses his gross motor skills and moves his body. “Hide and Seek” and “Tag” are great games to introduce. Playgrounds are a perfect place to run and play. Even just a slide inside will work if the weather is bad.
6. Expressive (Symbolic) Play
This play can use the child voice for things like singing, rhyming, and counting or hands for arts and crafts. This type of play focusing on expression through art or music. Musical instruments and art sets would be great for promoting this type of play.
As you can see, play is a complex skill for children. It may look like silly fun, but serious work is taking place. Children learn to move their bodies, get along with friends, problem solve, compromise and so much more. What is your favorite type of play? What type of play does your child do the most often? Is there a type of play that’s harder for your child?