December 06, 2021 4 min read
Play is the most effective way children learn, and they begin playing as soon as they enter the world.
As children grow, their play evolves as well. Brains and bodies rapidly develop in early childhood, so young children are working overtime to figure out who they are and how they experience the world around them.
A researcher and sociologist named Mildren Parten studied how play develops in young children. Because of her work, educators better understand how children engage in play during their first five years.
While every child engages in play differently, children explore six development stages from zero to five.
Infants make seemingly random arm, leg, or mouth movements that may not appear significant to adults at first glance. However, infants are exploring how their bodies move, and these sensory activities are the beginnings of play.
While unoccupied play may not seem to have apparent educational value, it is vital to a child’s overall development.
In this early stage, the child plays entirely alone and isn’t particularly interested in engaging with other children or adults. In fact, they may be completely unaware of the presence of others.
Though this is most common before the age of three, all age groups should have continued opportunities to engage in solitary play to relax and explore ideas independently.
This type of play can happen at any age but is primarily evident in toddlers.
The child will watch other children or adults play with toys or games, but they will make no effort to join them. However, they might engage by asking questions.
A child may play the role of onlooker when they feel shy around new or older people, hesitant to participate, or unfamiliar with specific rules of the game.
During this stage, a child begins to play next to other children without actively engaging with them. While there is no active interaction, observation is taking place. The child starts to take notice of children playing nearby and may mirror or mimic their play.
This stage is the foundation needed for more complex social play.
At this point of development, children begin to show more interest in engaging with other children over toys. They will start to play together but may be unable to do so cohesively. While the children play to accomplish similar goals, such as building a tower or climbing playground equipment, there are no clearly defined rules or specific organisation.
This stage is when children play together by sharing ideas, defining rules, and creating guidelines. They do this through role playing games and more organised activities. Through this more complex stage of play, children rapidly begin to develop their social skills.
While the stages of play may appear to be linear on paper, children can be exploring multiple stages simultaneously. For example, an older child who engages in collaborative play may still have instances where they participate as an onlooker.
Please note that the ages specified in this article act as general guidelines. They are in no way meant to dictate the pace of development for every child.
Play is necessary for child development. The role of parents and educators is to provide the necessary support and guidance required to ensure that they develop essential skills to engage with their peers positively and build meaningful connections.
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