Play Skills for Healthy Development

by Care Speech Pathology 
31 October 2022

Playing is the most important job a child has and it plays a crucial role in their healthy development. It is important for parents to understand why play matters, how play develops, and what families can be doing at home to help their child get even more out of play.

Why play?

Play is the method through which children learn about the world; develop their physical, social and language skills; foster imagination and creativity; build confidence; learn to problem-solve and so much more.

In fact, play, social and language development are so closely intertwined that they are all considered to be essential parts of the Speech Pathologist’s role when working with young children.

How does play develop?

There are six stages of play development in the early years and each of these is an important milestone for a child’s language and social development.

  1. Unoccupied Play (Birth to 3 months)
    During this stage babies are moving their own bodies – particularly their arms, legs and head. This is how babies learn about how their body moves.
  2. Solitary Play (Birth to 2 years)
    During the first couple of years of life children mostly play on their own, although they do become more aware of and engage with others around them. Initially, children’s play will be exploratory – that is, they explore the world by holding, touching, moving and mouthing objects. They later develop functional play, when toys are played with in the “right” way, e.g., shoveling sand into a bucket, rather than into their mouth!
  3. Spectator Play (2 to 2.5 years)
    Children begin to become interested in the play of other children. However, they are usually watching from a distance at this stage and not yet ready to start joining in.
  4. Parallel play (2.5 to 3 years)
    Children are playing a lot more closely together now, although are not yet playing with each other. Children in this stage have become very interested in what other children are doing.
  5. Associative play (3 to 4 years)
    Children are now more interested in each other than they are in toys. They will play with each other, often sharing toys, however are not yet working together while playing.
  6. Cooperative play (4 to 5 years)
    Children are now working together in their play. They are not only sharing toys, but also ideas, and are able to follow agreed rules in a game.

Types of play

There a three main types of play: functional play, constructive play and pretend play, and each of these has an important role in helping to develop a child’s communication.

  • Functional play – functional play grows from a child’s desire to understand the world around them. Initially, children push, bang and shake objects, before then using them in the way that is intended.
  • Construction play – this type of play requires a sequence of steps to be carried out to achieve a goal. To be successful at this type of play children need to be able to plan ahead. Block towers, painting pictures and making playdough sculptures are all examples of construction play.
  • Pretend play – this type of play is the most closely linked to language development. It requires children to use their imagination and pretend actions to symbolise real things. This ability to symbolise is crucial to the learning of language, because words are also a symbol of real things. Initially, children learn to symbolise individual actions, for example, talking on a toy phone. Later, they develop the ability to act out sequences, original stories and eventually include language and other children in their play.

Fostering play development

Playing with your child is a great way to foster their development in all areas. Here are some tips for helping your child’s development with play.

  • People games – children in the solitary play stage benefit from ‘people games’. These games require only yourself and your child, are easy to play, and require no special equipment. Games such as peek-a-boo, tickles and chasing are all examples of people games. These people games encourage interaction and turn taking.
  • Construction toys – offering and engaging with a variety of construction toys is a great way to help your child to learn to work towards a goal. Try offering a range of different experiences such as blocks, sand, water, playdough or clay, drawing or painting, and puzzles.
  • Pretend play toys – when a child understands symbolism, almost any item can become a pretend play toy. However, a variety of toys that can be used to ‘act out’ scenarios are useful for developing this type of play. Dolls and soft toys, dress ups, kitchen sets, doctors’ sets, cars and trains are just a few examples of toys that are great for pretend play

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