How Play Promotes Child Development: An Ultimate Guide for Parents

what parents need to know about play and why it's important

How play promotes healthy child development has been well researched. However, play is so hard to define! There are lots of different types of play and like other areas of development, it develops in stages. Play is so important for the development of lots of real-life skills. It is crucial for parents to know about play and understand why it’s so important for kids.

Play can be as simple as an adult playing a tickling game or peek-a-boo with a baby. On the other end of the scale, play could involve a group of children organizing a pretend situation where each takes a role. They might solve imaginary problems together, “oh no, the floor is lava!”

what parents need to know about play

PLAY IS A PLACE TO PRACTICE

“Play is the work of childhood” Fred Rogers

From the moment they are born, babies are learning about the world. They are learning about their surroundings and how things work. Babies are also learning the language they need to get their needs and wants met. They are forming a close emotional bond with their parents which helps them to feel safe and secure.

An important part of this is learning how to read and interpret the gestures and facial expressions of those around them. Play is central to promoting the development of this ability!

Babies are like sponges; they gradually start to understand and then use the language that they are exposed to everyday. As their language grows, they start to engage with others, and become more and more socially competent. Their language develops even more as they have more opportunities to interact with others socially. As their language develops, they are able to engage in more complex social situations.

Language Development and Social Competency support each other’s development, and play becomes a place to practice. This time of practice is needed to promote your child’s development of skills that they will need for life.

Check out these Essential Strategies to Build Speech and Language Skills.

And of course, there is a lot in-between. So what are the Stages of Play and what’s involved at each level? Each stage of play promotes child development and builds on the stage before.

How the STAGES OF PLAY promote child development

Unoccupied play

how play promotes development

Unoccupied play occurs when the child is not yet engaging with others, but they might start exploring things nearby- it might look pretty random to anyone watching! This early exploration is still important- it’s the foundation for later stages. This stage of play is commonly seen in newborns and young children between 0 and 2 years of age.

Solitary play

At the stage of solitary play, the child mostly plays with their own set of toys separately from others.

They have not let learnt the social skills necessary to engage with others, but they are learning important skills in learning how to entertain themselves. This type of play is mostly seen in toddlers between 0 to 2 years of age.

Until the age of 2, children often copy what they have seen those around them do, for example, flipping the pages of a book or talking on the phone. This is early pretend play.

Onlooker play

At the onlooker stage, the child looks on at the play of others, but does not join in.  This type of play is most common between the ages of 2 ½ and 3 ½.

Parallel play

Parallel play occurs when children play in parallel (side by side or nearby others) but without involvement or interaction.

This stage is valuable for developing social skills and helping children to transition into the later stages of play, with a heavier demand on social interactions. Parallel play is common between the ages of 2 ½ and 3 ½.  

Around this age, children also begin to develop symbolic thinking, when they start to use an object in place of the real thing. Toy cars, stuffed animals, and toy food all come under this umbrella. As this develops, children are gradually able to use objects that are less and less like the real thing.

For example, the teddy bear might now be a baby, or a pen might be a microphone- one object is now symbolizing another.

Associative play

how play promotes development

Associative play is the first stage of play in which children play together, although this is not yet collaborative and the amount of interaction is limited.

Although at times they may still be playing separately, children are becoming much more interested in the children around them, and are beginning to become involved in what they are doing. At this stage, children will begin communicating and engaging with those around them, although the play is still unstructured. This type of play begins between of 3-4 years of age.

At this stage, pretend play is also becoming increasingly complex. Children will act out stories with others that are well planned and include a plot with various characters. Children are now able to act and talk like the character they are pretending to be.

Cooperative play

how play promotes development

Co-operative play occurs when children begin to organize themselves into groups with set roles and usually a leader. The play is organised with specific goals or tasks, as children are interested in both the people that they are playing with, as well as the activity.

Co-operative play requires a much higher degree of social maturity, and brings together all the skills learnt at the earlier stages of play. It is usually seen between the ages of 4 and 6.

WHY IS PLAY SO IMPORTANT?

Play is a place where children can practise and develop their language, and to observe, try out and develop new social skills. Also linked to these, is the development of Theory of Mind, Imagination, and Resilience.

A lot is happening when children play!

How Play Promotes Development in Language

Learning to take turns with another person is a large part of learning to play. This can start from rolling a ball between a baby and a parent, and will continue to develop until children are adept in taking turns in games.

This early turn-taking in play is the foundation for turn-taking in conversations- that it is important both to initiate and to respond, and that a good conversation means that both people can have a turn at talking, and the other will listen and respond.

As play becomes more complex, the opportunities for practising language increase (you could also say that there is a demand for more complex language in complex play).

As imagination develops, there will be opportunities to talk about things outside of the here and now. The play might involve chatter about aliens or dinosaurs, or it could involve acting like another person. It’s certainly a higher language demand to be able to pretend to be the teacher!

How Play Promotes the Development in Social Skills

Play is the platform in which children develop social skills. As they grow, they will need to learn how to share, negotiate, and problem-solve with their peers. These things are tricky at first, but as they have opportunity through play to practise, they will learn the skills to interact positively with others- the skills needed for strong relationships later in life.

One of the main ways to learn these skills is by trial and error, i.e. by putting their foot in it. When the group make it clear that it was socially unacceptable to do what was just done, they have provided feedback, and a valuable learning experience.

How Play Promotes Development in Theory of Mind

Theory of mind is the ability to recognize the mental states of yourself and others (emotions, beliefs, knowledge, intentions, perspectives). It is the ability to understand that others can have different emotions, beliefs, intentions, and perspectives from your own.

Like language and play, Theory of Mind develops from an extremely early age. Theory of Mind starts to develop from birth. The first five steps are listed here.

Theory of Mind- Early Stages of Development

  1. Wanting– 14-18 months
    Your child starts to learn that people can want different things.
     
  2. Thinking– 2-3 years
    Your child starts to learn that people can have different thoughts.
     
  3. Seeing leads to knowing– 3-4
    Your child starts to learn that if someone can’t see it, they don’t know what it is without extra information.
     
  4. Hidden Feelings
    Your child starts to learn that people can feel a different emotion from the one they display.
     
  5. False Beliefs
    Your child starts to learn that you can make someone believe something that’s not true.

Research shows that pretend play is a precursor to theory of mind. If a child is playing symbolically with an object (e.g. using one object to represent another), they will have to think flexibly and hold two opposing thoughts in their mind. I am pretending that this pencil is a comb, but I also know that it’s still just a pencil.

When children pretend to be someone else in play, they have to think about the perspective of the character they are role playing.

Playing imaginatively allows children to develop theory of mind- to put themselves in others’ shoes, understand what they are thinking and their emotions, to solve these social problems, and to develop abstract thinking.

It gives children opportunities to understand and use hidden feelings and false beliefs, predict others’ actions based on their thoughts, and to create novel play interactions based on real-life social experiences.

how play promotes development

How Play Promotes the Development of Imagination

Play is a unique and brilliant opportunity for your child’s world to expand and for their imagination to really take off.

Simple toys can be better offer flexibility without limiting their imagination. Toys that can be played with in lots of different ways are better- stuffed animals etc

Imaginative play feeds into Social Competence (helps to und and adjust to social situations)

Improved Social Competence feeds into Imaginative Play… and so on.

How Play Promotes the Development of Resilience

To a baby, everything in the world is new, and a large number of these are threatening. It is the role of the parent to gently support the child to overcome their fear and take risks. With a safe adult, the child will learn that he can take a risk- and that it might even be fun. Through taking these risks with your positive feedback, he discovers the joy in new things and new people. Your child is developing resilience in challenging situations.

Play is a great opportunity to slowly introduce your child to new things and to encourage them to take risks, as well as reassuring them that they can trust you. Think of a playground and all the risks that are involved- play is an opportunity for your child to develop resilience.

HOW TO PLAY TO PROMOTE DEVELOPMENT

how play promotes development

When to Introduce Play

Play is an important part of life from the second babies are born. Remember that play is how your baby will explore the world and start to figure things out. Also remember that play stimulates healthy brain development. With this in mind, play is important from day one!

At the earliest stages of play, your baby will love the sound of your voice as you make playful sounds, funny faces, and exaggerate everything!

Repetition is a trademark of early play, as babies love becoming familiar with actions, songs, rhymes or games that you do. Have you ever seen a child get bored of peekaboo? It’s because this game is familiar and they can start to predict what will happen- endless fun!

Teaching Pretend Play

When your child is little, it is important to join in playfully with your child. Show your child how to play with objects, and what actions they can use. You can start to use simple pretend language, “let’s pretend we’re on a train.”

You can gradually start to introduce symbolic objects– or even pretend you have an object when you really don’t have anything. Teach your child explicitly how to do this, “are you a doctor? Let’s pretend you have a stethoscope.

Later, you can support your child to act out a story, but don’t be afraid to throw in a problem that you’ll have to solve together, “oh no! How will swim to the island with all of these sharks in the water?!”

When you have got your child and peers started in this kind of play, don’t be afraid to step out and allow them to take the game in new directions.

Your role is to suggest new ideas or to coach your child to extend their thinking and level of play, but it still needs to be playful and fun- no pressure!

How Often to Play

Play is a vital time for interacting with your child. Ideally, there will be time to play with your child every single day. All types of play are important- whether it’s pretending, physical play, or playing while sitting at a table. Look for the opportunities to add language and talk while you play, and to join in and suggest things that will extend thinking and develop imagination

You can introduce play into everyday routines (think Mary Poppins) by considering your routines and daily activities as opportunities to incorporate play into your day.

What could you add into meal times, bath time or walking to school to promote language, social skills, imagination, theory of mind or resilience?

Also consider how you can introduce times of extended play, as this will support your child’s attention and ability to engage in something for a sustained length of time. This is crucial for both social relationships and learning as your child grows.

Play is a great way to allow your child to explore something that interests them. Let your child make this choice and follow the lead.

Although children learn through play, they play because it is interesting and fun. Therefore, children need positive and fun play partners to engage with.

Your child will have lots of play partners but your role in play as their parent is still important! So join in, have fun, and take away the pressure.

Seek out opportunities in your everyday life to play. Remember that play promotes development- there will be huge benefits for your child and their later success in life.

what parents need to know about play

PLAY DEVELOPS SKILLS FOR LIFE

Play promotes the development of:

  • Language Skills
  • Social Skills
  • Theory of Mind
  • Imagination
  • Resilience

Daniel is a 40 year old male who is a great conversational partner. He keeps others involved in the conversation and makes sure that they are interested. Daniel responds well both to the things that are said, but also the things that are unsaid- the non-verbal cues. He can take the hint and move the conversation along when he needs to! He doesn’t dominate the speaking time but balances speaking and listening. He’s good at connecting new ideas to ones that have been mentioned earlier. And also at adding new ideas to a conversation. Everybody loves talking to Daniel!

Daniel has good Theory of Mind. All of these skills are because he is able to understand his conversational partner’s perspective. He can read the person he is talking to, and adapt as necessary.

So how did play promote the development of these skills?

These are skills that Daniel gained through his early play experiences and the many social interactions and imaginative opportunities that this involved. The benefits of play, undeniably, stretch far into adulthood!  

Want a little more?

Grab your free copy of the Speech and Language Strategies Essential Cheat Sheets. Print off and use to help with these strategies to boost your child’s speech and language. Enjoy!

how play promotes development

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Thanks for reading!

Freya x

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How Play Promotes Child Development: An Ultimate Guide for Parents

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