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No Wrong Way to Play

In today's world, it can be hard to remember the value of play. Our education system pushes academic readiness as early as preschool, with focus on reading, math, and other curriculum-based facts. As adults, we often forget the value of play as we focus on productivity in the workplace and survival on the home front.

As Brené Brown says, "it takes courage to say yes to rest and play, in a culture where exhaustion is a seen as status symbol."

For children, play is much more than 'just fun.' It is, instead, fundamental to their development. It is how children learn and explore their environment, how they engage with others, and how they grow in confidence and skill.

Through play, children develop...

  • Imaginative thinking

  • Abstract thinking

  • Problem solving

  • Life skills

  • Leadership skills

  • Communication skills

  • Social skills

  • Self-advocacy

  • Theory of Mind (e.g., taking another's perspective)

  • And MORE!

So let's take a look at the development of play from infancy to adolescence and explore how you can encourage play with your children today.

Types of Play

Functional Play

Functional play is defined as play with toys or objects in a way that you would expect based on the object's intended function (e.g., rolling a ball, driving a car). This type of play is often the first type of play to emerge, beginning in infancy and continuing on into toddlerhood. It is often a combination of sensory and motor play, meaning that the play stimulates your child's senses (e.g., touch, smell, taste, movement, balance, sight, hearing) and develops your child's fine motor and gross motor skills (e.g., finger isolation, pincer grasp, body coordination, etc).

Although some examples are quite straightforward (e.g., rolling a ball, stacking a block), other examples of functional play are a bit surprising. For example, babies mouthing objects and toddler climbing furniture are both examples of functional play too!

Recommended Toys to Encourage Functional Play:

  • Stacking: Blocks, Cups

  • Rolling: Balls, Toy Cars

  • Sensory Exploration: Teethers, Rattles, Dimpl popping toy,

  • Riding: Toddler Bike, Scooter

Symbolic Play

Symbolic play is typically the next big stage of play, when your child starts to use objects to represent (or symbolize) other objects. It can be divided into two different categories: constructional play and dramatic (or pretend) play.

Constructional Play

This stage typically begins around 2 years of age when children manipulate, shape, or build something in their play. Once again, this is often a combination of sensory and motor play, as your child is required to touch, balance, push, pull, etc as they play.

Recommendations to Encourage Constructional Play:

  • Building a tower or castle (blocks, magnatiles, kinetic sand)

  • Creating with playdough

  • Assembling a blanket fort

  • Digging dams and rivers in mud

  • Woodworking toys

Dramatic Play

Dramatic play, or pretend play, begins around 3 years of age although you may see some early symbolic play actions in play as early as 18-24 months. The earliest actions are simple -- pretending to drink from a cup or brushing a doll's hair but as your child grows older, these play schemas will become longer and more complex. Your child will create or recreate a play scenario (e.g., cooking dinner, going to the doctor, playing house). They will begin to take on a role and later assign roles to others as they begin to engage in cooperative play!

This type of play is fun to watch, as you can see your child's personality and creativity blossom. But it can also be a challenge, as your demanding, controlling toddler tells you every single way you are "doing it wrong mama."

Recommendations to Encourage Dramatic Play:

  • Pretend objects are something else (e.g., pretend a shoe is a phone)

  • Make favorite foods in a pretend kitchen

  • Play restaurant and order food

  • Play with baby dolls (e.g., bathe them, feed them, rock them to sleep)

Game Play