Play is critical in a child’s development. Though play may seem like just an easy way to keep your little one happy and entertained, play is actually serious business for your child, and his main job responsibility while growing up. Every day, young children learn new things about themselves and the world around them, and much of this learning takes place through the vehicle of play. Play provides important opportunities for your child to learn about his environment, interact with others and develop key social skills, and experiment with different types of “adult” roles.
A child’s play looks very different at different stages of development, however. Young infants are primarily engaged in manipulating different objects (with most of them entering their mouths!), exploration of their environment by reaching for and grasping items, and movement play (e.g., being held, spun, or lifted up high). This stage of play also provides opportunities for infants to develop foundational social skills such as making eye contact and sharing attention with others. As toddlers, children shift their focus of play to functional play with objects. Toddlers become more interested in how objects work, and how they should be used. As children play independently with cars, puzzles, dolls, and musical toys, opportunities abound to play next to other children (“parallel” play) or to watch how other children play with toys. Children then typically move to more and more complex play activities that are more social, such as using objects or toys to symbolize real-world social interactions (e.g., pretend play with dolls, dress-up activities). They also begin to show more creativity in their play (such as by coloring pictures or building with Play-Doh) and begin to understand rules of play while playing structured games such as “Duck-duck-goose” or Candy Land. These forms of play provide opportunities for children to learn how to share toys, talk to their peers, and how to cope with disappointment (such as when losing a game).
It’s important to assess where your child’s current play skills are in order to know which critical play skills might be good “next steps” to promote in their development. For example, your 3-year-old may still be primarily interested in manipulating and mouthing objects. If he is currently in this stage of play, it probably wouldn’t be appropriate to try to teach him pretend play skills. Instead, you’d likely want to create opportunities for him to develop some simple functional play skills, such as using objects by their function (e.g., building a tower with blocks). No matter where your child is in his current development, there are always opportunities to build those critical next steps of play that will help him grow. Seek out the help of a qualified professional who understands child development (e.g., a Licensed Psychologist, Developmental Pediatrician, or Board Certified Behavior Analyst are a few examples) who can help guide you on how to best promote your child’s play development. Then join them in having fun playing together!