The role of play in development

Play builds strong bodies and strong minds.  Because play allows children to practice situations before they get to them, play relieves stress and provides an opportunity for children to work out their fears.  Through careful observation and allowing the child to direct their own play, adults are given an opportunity to understand children better.  When I became a parent, I remember being surprised to find that there was a purpose for toys that went beyond just having fun!  It was very interesting for me to find out how much kids learn from toys, even from a very young age.  They can learn cause and effect, reaching, grasping, a desire for mobility when they see something out of reach that they want - just to name a few.

Play begins at infancy through simple, solitary observation of the world.  As the child’s cognitive and motor skills improve, he is able to interact more and more with both the objects and the people in his environment.  

In the next stage of play, children begin playing independently.  As Piaget says, they become “little scientists” and explore the world by learning cause and effect relationships.  For example, they might drop a plate over and over again to see what happens - both the sound and movement that the plate makes as it hits the floor and also the caregiver’s reaction.  

As children’s cognitive, social, and language skills improve, children first start to notice what other children are doing, and then they move into what is called “parallel play.”  This means that the children are playing independently but next to each other.  In this stage, they also start noticing other children (and adults) around them, observing them, and imitating their behavior.

Finally, children arrive at a stage where their play becomes more interactive.  As their cognitive skills improve, children learn mental representation, which allows them to begin to pretend.  First they participate in associative play by borrowing, lending, sharing, etc.  They can also start to play cooperative or organized play such as games and shared goals (Cook et al., 2008).