Monday, January 31, 2011


What is play?  It is a word that has so many different meanings, but when it comes to children it means 'how children learn.'  Watching my daughter play with her toys is so fascinating. I constantly ask myself, why did she chose that toy? Why does she put it through her fingers? Why does she throw that one and not try to eat it instead?

But while watching my child play, I have to constantly remind myself that she does not need to be entertained by me 24/7. Letting her play by herself is very important to her development.  I don't have to constantly be sitting there with her and giving her my undivided attention. She will learn a lot by self-play, fostering learning, independence and exploration.  Now of course I play with her here and there, singing songs with her, reading stories and interacting with her and her toys, but I make sure it's a balance between both self play and interacting.

The Importance of Play

I know I've mentioned before how important it is for a child to play, as it's how children communicate. It releases energy, anxiety and is a form of expression in therapy. But what I haven't mentioned is how important it is overall in a child's life. I can't even imagine what a child's life would be like without play.

After taking a few classes for my undergrad degree in Child Development, I learned a lot about how children learn through play from the NAEYC (National Association of Education of Young Children) accreditation program for preschools.  Their main belief is that when children explore, experiment, and interact through play, they learn about how the world works.  I loved learning about play and is one of the reasons I became a play therapist.

Here are a few bits of information on play from NAYEC and my Play Therapy resources:

Different types of play:

1) Parallel Play: From infancy, children act on the world around them just for the pleasure of seeing what happens; for example, repeatedly dropping a spoon on the floor or pulling the cat’s tail. But by the time they are toddlers, they need playmates, yet they play with them quite differently from the way older children play together. Place two 18-month-olds with similar toys near each other in the same room, and you'll note that they don't seem to pay much attention to each other- that's parallel play. They somewhat interact with each other, you'll notice that if one picks up a truck, the other is likely to do the same. If the first child looks at that truck and says, "No" (a toddler's favorite word), the second is likely to imitate him and yell, "No!" as well.

2) Symbolic Play: To an infant or a young toddler, a block is a block. If she has more than one, she might stack them or pull them apart. But once she's about 2 years old, she can start using blocks for much more and uses them symbolically. In her eyes they can become a house, a car, or anything else she wants, such as picking up a shell and pretending to drink from it like a cup.

3) Imaginary/Pretend Play: An older toddler or a preschooler can fight dragons or fly to the moon, all without leaving his bedroom. If you want to build a child this age a fort, all you need are some chairs and cardboard boxes.

4) Collaborative Play: Preschoolers progress from solitary and parallel play to collaborative play. By the age of 3-5 children begin to engage in more mature forms of dramatic play, in which they may act out specific roles, interact with one another in their roles, and plan how the play will go.  It's at this stage that your child learns to master important new social skills, such as sharing, taking turns, obeying rules, and negotiating. These are all very difficult behaviors for a young child to learn. After all, at this age, your child believes she is the center of the universe!

So, in short, here is a summary of all the benefits of Play:

-Play is the singular central activity of childhood, occurring at all times and in all places.

-Kids do not need to be taught how to play- it's spontaneous, voluntary and non-goal directed.

-Play is NOT work. There is no goal involved and no external reward!

-Play is an active form of learning. Learning social, cognitive, emotional and physical skills.

-Play is an important vehicle for developing self-regulation as well as for promoting language,
cognition, and social competence

-When playing with peers, children develop skills for seeing something from another's point of view, how to cooperate, share, help and solve problems

-Children express and work out emotional aspects of everyday experiences as well as frightening events, especially through dramatic play

- Play is how children explore and orient themselves to the actual world of things, animals, people and structures

Here are a few ways to stimulate play as a parent:

(For a good detailed list of toys for each age, click here)

-Provide activities and materials that challenge various levels of skills

-Give children the freedom to be messy

-Focus on the process and not the product (the outcome)- no goal or external rewards

-Supply props for dramatic play as well as various art materials for them to express themselves

-Provide games for children to play such as board games, so they can learn rules

-Providing classic unit blocks and other construction materials such as Legos helps kids learn mathematical concepts

-Give them playdates and opportunities to play and interact with other children

-They don't need every toy out there, the best ones are simple and where they can use their imagination the most!

Wow, there sure is a lot to talk about when it comes to play. Hope I didn't overwhelm you all. But if there is anything to take home from learning about play, the most important thing is to let your child be a child and have fun playing!


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