Hurray for play!

Play has been likened to a fertiliser that nourishes the brain ‘with the behavioural equivalent of miracle Gro’ (John Medina 2008).  Play facilitates learning, encourages creativity and imagination, supports and develops our memory, language, social skills, problem solving ability and much more!

Play is the ‘work of childhood’ (Fred Rogers). As children learn about their world through play, understanding how it develops and how we can support it, is crucial.  Entering a child’s world, requires that we meet them at their developmental stage of play. By doing this we will have a good chance of encouraging them to listen and watch, explore and imitate.

State of play

You are being watched! All the time. As your child’s most influential teacher, they will be watching and learning from you continuously. When we play with children, they watch and learn, learn learn!  We play from the moment we are born, and we continue to play in to adulthood. The way we play throughout these stages is however very different and children will pass through distinct play stages from infancy to preschool age.

Let’s take a look at this journey.

Exploratory play. From birth.

From the very first stages of life, children learn about the world using their senses. Did you know that the lips are one of the most sensitive areas of the body? The lips have many receptor cells that send information to the brain. It is no wonder then that children who are just starting to learn about their world, will play by putting objects to their mouths and in their mouths. Exploring objects this way helps children learn about their features and uses. Each time they explore, they will learn something new and keep adding to this information store for later use. It will eventually help them name items using language.

Encouraging play at this stage

Having everyday objects around as well as toys is a useful way to encourage this learning.  Slowly children will learn about how to use objects appropriately. Try giving your child a spare cup, spoon or toothbrush to play with when you are carrying out real activities using these objects.

This is also the stage where your child will be looking at you to exchange smiles with you and play with sounds. As your child learns that their actions receive a reaction from you they will be encouraged to play more.

Exploratory play doesn’t stop here. It will continue throughout the preschool years as your child is introduced to new objects and new functions, although rather than putting things in their mouths, they will be more likely to discover things with their hands!

Play at 9 months

Children will start to use the information they learned from exploring objects and will begin to show you that they know how to use them! Your clever little cookie may pretend to brush their hair with a hair brush or put a toothbrush to their teeth.

Encouraging play at this stage

Continuing to demonstrate the uses of everyday objects will support your child during this stage. Try making a ‘treasure chest’ filled with useful things. What can they find? Take your time to explore what’s inside.

This stage of play provides some good opportunities to develop language as your child may start to act out events. Using repetitive phrases such as ‘brush dolly’s hair’ or ‘give teddy the cup’ will expose your child to the same language over and over as they play.

Play at 18 months

Your child’s play is really developing and evolving now. They will start to understand that one object can represent another object e.g. a miniature spoon represents a real spoon.  They have been busy bees and all that important playing has helped them reach this significant point. Understanding that one thing can represent another thing is key for learning language, as we use words to represent objects. Your child is beginning to master something complex!

If you have ever wondered why a speech and language therapist looks at how your child plays with objects and toys, this is why! Play can tell us a lot about where your child is on their language journey. Often, if there is a delay in play, there is a delay in language. Supporting and moving on your child’s ability to play therefore helps build the foundations required for language.

Encouraging play at this stage

You can help your child to learn that one object represents another by:

  • Playing with real objects and then introducing a miniature version (from a doll house set). You can model what you do with these objects e.g. brush teeth, drink from a cup
  • Play with teddies and dolls using these objects e.g. feed dolly
  • Play matching games. Have a bag of big and small matching objects. Take them out one by one and try and match them.
  • You can also try this with a picture of the object and the real object. Use a feely bag. What can you feel? Does it match the picture? You can use real photos of things that your child uses or generic pictures.
2.5 years Acting out!

Through play, your child will now likely be showing you how they understand the world around them. They will be using their toys, teddies and dolls to act out sequences that they have grasped from watching, playing and doing e.g. giving teddy his milk and putting him to bed. Acting out these sequences is crucial for later when your child will tell you stories.

Encouraging play at this stage

You can help your child at this stage but acting out the sequences with them. Use familiar toys and clear language e.g. ‘Dolly is eating breakfast, now she is getting dressed’.

You can help your child to structure these ideas but using words like ‘first, second, third’ or ‘Now and next’. Make up sequences containing two steps and see if your child can copy you or do their own.

3 years

Your child has come a long way since the stage of exploration and mouthing objects! They can now use their imaginations and act out short sequences and pretend to be different people e.g. doctor, nurse, fireman. This sort of play will further help them expand on their world knowledge and support their understanding of other people’s emotional states.

Encouraging play at this stage

Encourage this sort of play by using fancy dress. Pretend to be different people and create scenarios where your child may have to think about how someone feels e.g. taking on the role of a doctor to help a patient who is unwell or a vet who is helping a scared animal.

Your child’s play skills will continue to develop and evolve now as they mature to school age and onwards.

Learn to play, play to learn!

Playing allows children to explore and learn about their world, it powers the imagination and boosts their creativity. As your child’s best teacher and first playmate you have an amazing role in spurring on all these skills.  Each stage of play is dependent on the stage before and in each stage, they are learning something crucial that will help them navigate their world.

We learn best when we are having fun, so it makes perfect sense that learning is so rapid in these early years!

Written by Carolyn Fox, Children’s Speech and Language Therapist

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