Play is a natural way for children to learn about the world around them. Play allows children of all ages to explore their surroundings and their relationships. It helps create a sense of self, confidence, and an understanding of their social relationships.

Generally, there are two main types of play. The first is social play (playing with people) and the other is playing with objects. As a child grows, playing with objects and playing with people are often combined into more complex play.

Play develops along with the child from simple to more advanced. So how does play develop?

Play with people

This begins with responding to others (for example, the simple back and forth interaction of smiling with adults) is a key foundation when learning how to communicate and how to copy. It provides each communication partner with a sense of shared joy in each other.

Start with copying things your child can do and pausing for them to take a turn. Add new, fun sounds and facial expressions and pause. It will usually take many, many repetitions before a young one is able to imitate something new.

It moves to learning to anticipate what might come next as you play familiar games with them. By calling out they initiate interactions and drawing you into their play. As they get better at something or feel successful, they call attention to themselves. This leads to important adults around them noticing them. They are still reliant on adults being their ‘safe’ play partner.

This can be a great time to support your child to repeat a new skill. As they become masters of an activity, parents can add something new or a novel action. They notice others and their surroundings. You may comment on what they see around them and when they show interest feel free to turn it into a new game. For example, “oh oh” “Doggie gone” Where did doggie go? Is he under the couch” (Look under the couch with child,) “No” “Is he under the table?” (Look under the table together) “No” “Is he in the toy box?” Etc. Then at the end, find him “Yay” or “Where is doggie? I can’t find him.” “Doggie all gone”. Playing games that start with you copying their actions/sounds and then you adding a new one is great fun at this stage.

Play develops from a more centered what I can do in this world too; how I can interact with others and enjoy myself. This can be a difficult time as young one’s battle with their own wants and desires over those wants and desires of peers. It is typical for them to have some successes and many difficult emotions as they move through this back and forth, give and take aspect of play. It is important that the adults around support them with some confidence that the child will have success but also an awareness that they may have to step in and bridge or help the child’s burgeoning skills in this area. Pretend play begins to flourish at this time; where they are, practicing social interactions, inviting peers, practicing leading and following, and showing interest in a peers enjoyment.

Talking about feelings will help your child recognize them and possibly see how you deal with them. Providing possible solutions to conflicts when they have less of a stake in it will give them some ideas that eventually they can draw upon. For instance, pausing during play with some stuffies and you and your child help them solve a problem like they both want to drive the pretend car.

Noticing when things are getting difficult and stepping in (the more we put our energy into prevention the more times our child experiences success in dealing with difficult situations.)

You are still so important to your child; your responses and actions teach your child how to cope with difficult situations. When we play with our children it is a safe place to practice how to react to different situations that arise. As adults, we can provide alternate ideas where there is a win-win situation for the play partners. Play is learning!

Remember to show joy and fun as a way of being.

Play with objects

This begins with your child exploring objects using all of their senses including their mouths! One important concept that babies learn early on is that objects exist when they are out of sight. By using all of their senses, they are able to master this concept.

When babies play with hanging toys or objects in their hands, they learn that their own body has an effect on the outside world. It teaches them that their movements cause events to happen in the world. Eventually, they are able to deliberately interact with their toys. They will shake their hand with the rattle in it to make that funny noise! Or they will push a button on a toy to see it light up and move.

Slowly move interesting objects around so that baby can follow it with their gaze. Shake and move objects around when they are out of sight. Show them how to work toys by pushing the buttons or making things work. Encourage them to try.

This can then move to a Toddler who tends to explore their surroundings with all of their senses.

Toddlers will begin copying chore-like activities with objects that look like the real thing. They will use the toddler-sized shovel, the miniature shopping cart, or the broom and dustpan. Sometimes, we will catch them cutting hair on themselves, stuffies, or their siblings!

They will spend time perfecting their actions with objects to achieve what they want. This determination allows them to begin practicing some problem-solving. This leads to feelings of competence and confidence.

Allow them to help you with chores in a way that is safe! They want to participate. Give them jobs or another way to do what you’re doing. Maybe give them a mini rolling pin when you’re baking, their own rag to help you clean up a spill or a toddler shovel to help dig a hole. When introducing new toys allow them to explore it on their own time. It is easy as a parent to ‘show’ your toddler how this toy works. Try following their lead. They may be more interested in the sounds a toy makes when you dump it out or how it looks spilling. We can enjoy these ways of playing with it before introducing that it can also be put together a certain way.

It develops into a preschooler who begins to add to their pretend play. The way they act out chores with objects might not be exactly the way they have experienced it or seen it. It also becomes longer and more creative.

This shows up when children begin using objects to symbolize or represent something different. A stick might become a spoon. Rocks, Sand, and Grass clippings become a delicious soup to share with their peers.

Object play becomes more intertwined with social play at this stage. Pre-schoolers not only notice their peers but also become interested in their peers as a social partner. They start to see that their peers might have something of value to add to their play with objects. This allows them to practice leading as well as following play ideas.

Participate in their play and go along with their pretend play. They might not have a straightforward storyline and that’s okay! You can provide things like cardboard boxes, old Tupperware, sheets and dress-up clothing to encourage some pretend play. It is great to follow their lead and at times add some ideas and encourage them to try it. To keep the joy the things you add are best to be things your child has shown some interest in before. Play is safe and allows for back-and-forth engaging activities. Play allows your child to deal with feelings and bounce back. Some periods of playing on their own allows them to work through things. This independent time allows them to feel successful and self-confident.