Play can take on myriad of forms depending on the developmental maturity and personality of the child, the setting and resources available, and the child’s group of peers. Some might assume that if children aren’t involved in an adult-planned activity that they aren’t developing or learning anything important. Yet play isn’t just a frivolous way for kids to spend time when nothing else is structured for them. It can benefit them on many levels, including physically, mentally, socially, and emotionally. Play can, in fact, influence a child’s overall growth as a person.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the ways children can mature through play:
- Physically: Children learn dexterity and strength as they engage in outdoor play. They develop curiosity as they explore the world around them and manipulate various materials.
- Mentally: Children learn to think critically and problem-solve as they experiment, create, construct, imagine, and probe the way things work.
- Socially: Children are learning to communicate, negotiate, and cooperate. Higher-level social skills like friendship building, perspective taking, teamwork, and collaboration can also be developed as children mature. Almost all children love to play, and play is the perfect medium for children of diverse backgrounds and personalities to intermingle.
- Emotionally: Children learn about fairness, trust, and caring for others through play. They learn to build confidence and creativity, and play can give them a safe outlet for balancing stress in their lives.
Looking at the stages of play can help us understand roughly where a child’s play fits on a social spectrum. These stages become more socially integrated and complex as the child matures. It’s good to remember that while these guidelines give a point of reference, children don’t necessarily move chronologically from one stage to the next and should not be compared with their peers due to individual needs, strengths, and preferences.
Here are the typical developmental stages of play:
- Solitary play. Young children about two to three years old often play alone without noticing or interacting with other children.
- Onlooker play. A child may watch as others play. Some conversation may occur, but the child observes without joining in.
- Parallel play. A child may play near another child and may use the same materials, but children are generally playing side by side without much interaction. The child is learning to share space with another child, as well as learning play skills.
- Associative play. Several children play together. They interact, take turns, and share equipment.
- Cooperative play. Children play together and work together toward a common goal that requires them to interact and contribute. The play may involve imagination such as role play.
Here are some suggestions to help children develop socially through play:
- Give opportunities to mingle. You might open your home and invite school and neighborhood peers to play with your child in a setting that you can supervise. Or you might enroll your child in a preschool program, attend library readings for children, join play groups in your community or place of worship, or play regularly at a local park. Especially if your child does not have siblings close in age, these opportunities to learn from peers can help your child develop communication and social skills as well as foster friendships.
- Teach fairness. All children want and deserve to be treated fairly. They hate to see unfairness in the world, and they have many instincts toward kindness. Praise children when they include others, share, and think of the needs of another child. When a child feels the sting of not being treated fairly, talk to the child about how that feels. Encourage children to treat others the way they want to be treated.
- Emphasize cooperation. Taking turns and playing cooperatively can help build friendships. Emphasize the role that each person has in things going smoothly for everyone. Encourage cooperation in simple activities such as putting together a puzzle, building a block tower, or stringing beads. Teamwork gives children an opportunity to work on a common goal and learn sharing skills in the process.
- Encourage your child’s efforts. Be an example of respect, kindness, and equity in your relationship with your child. Be encouraging and nurturing so that children feel safe to be themselves and learn through trial and error, peer influence, and your loving support.
Cheri J. Meiners, M.Ed., has her master’s degree in elementary education and gifted education. A former first-grade teacher, she has taught education classes at Utah State University and has supervised student teachers. Cheri and her husband David have six children and enjoy the company of their lively grandchildren. They live in Laurel, Maryland.
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