This is the quintessential time of childhood, with fairy tales and imagination, tumbling and playing, first friends, real conversations, and your child revealing more and more of who he or she is and what gifts and interests he or she brings. It is also a period of inconsistency, with your child showing surprising competence some of the time and immaturity other times. Thinking between the ages of 2 and 5 has a very uneven and variable quality. (You will see unevenness again during the teen years.) Age 6-7 is often seen as transitional, as your child begins to enter middle childhood and a more consistent way of being.
Forming one’s self identity begins in early childhood, shortly after children begin to recognize themselves in a mirror, a milestone that often emerges around 18 months or so.
The classic test of self recognition is the “rouge” test. If you’d like to try it, discretely place a dot of cream blush or lipstick (or watercolor paint if you prefer) on your finger, without your child seeing, and casually touch it to your child’s forehead. Wait a couple of minutes then get your child . . .
Social play with peers is particularly important because, unlike play with a parent, in which there is an implicit power structure, peer interactions have a more even distribution of power. Peer play places children in control, providing opportunities for self-directed learning and learning through shared experiences.
In particular, social play lets children explore ways to use symbols, gestures, and language, challenging and exercising their developing linguistic abilities. In pretend play, children often enact narratives, in which they collaborate to develop or recreate a story . . .
Developmental scientists classify play into a number of different types, notably object play, physical play, and pretend play. Each of these can become forms of social play when they are shared with another person.
Each of these three general forms of play emerge in infancy, during the 12 – 24 month period.
The very first object play appears around a year. If you see your year-old child do something like pick up a phone, hold it to her ear and jabber, you are seeing the very beginnings of object play. Your child at this point is doing culturally appropriate things with objects. This is the first step into pretending. A few months later you may see her hold a block to her ear, pretending it is a phone. That kind of imaginative improvisation is the real start of pretend play. What is so significantly different in the two phone events is that in the first the child is using a real object, in the second she substituting a block for a phone. This marks a major breakthrough, for the block symbolizes a phone. Symbolic thinking of various sorts marks a distinction between infancy and early childhood.
Parents naturally initiate social play with their infants through simple activities like nursery routines or sharing toys. These interactions involve turn-taking and jointly paying attention to objects. While that may seem simple, these kinds of exchanges are very important for supporting the development of both communication and play. They scaffold play abilities by encouraging interactions that young children would not be able to come up with, nor sustain, on their own. Play of this sort with parents sets the stage for children’s ability to successfully play with peers.
Physical play involves discovering, trying out, and practicing all sorts of ways to move, manipulate things and use one’s arms, legs, hands, feet, head and torso.
Patterns of Social Play
If you observe young children you’ll notice that the characteristics of a toddler’s play are clearly different from those of a 4-year-old, in ways that clearly go beyond physical skill and language. In 1933, developmental psychologist Marjorie Parten carried out the first systematic study of how young children’s social play develops. She identified 4 levels of such play in young children. Subsequent research, even 80 years later, generally supports Parten’s pioneering work. Outside of parent-directed or adult-directed play, children typically progress through the these four patterns of social play.
1. Solitary Play refers to early forms of self-initiated play, in which the child plays alone with toys or objects. Small children sitting and looking at a book, or experimenting making sounds with pots and pans or pressing buttons on a toy are engaged in solitary play. They are alone and engrossed for a little while in their activity. (begins around 1 ½ – 2 years).
2. Parallel Play consists of similar but separate play in a closely shared space with another child. As the name suggests, the children are not truly interacting, but they are aware of what the other is doing and their activities sometimes resemble each others. If you see two small children in the sandbox together, each playing with shovels or dump trucks and perhaps noticing what the other does, perhaps even copying one another, but not sharing items or collaborating to make a game together, you are seeing parallel play. (begins around 2 years)
3. Associative play is also largely separate play, but children now pay attention to others, share play objects, or talk together a bit. (emerges around 3 years)
4 Cooperative Play marks a transition to real collaboration, in which a common goal or scenario is shared with a play partner and children interact cooperatively to reach the mutually understood objective. They often elaborate and embellish as they play, sometimes transforming from one kind of scenario into another. The important thing is that two or more children are working together to create and maintain the play activity. (frequently appears by 4 years)
Parten, M. (1933). Social play among preschool children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 28 (2): 136–147.
It is easy to underestimate the value of play. As adults, our “play” takes place during leisure time and we see it as fun and lighthearted. We regard it as recreational, with no practical purpose, other than unwinding, having fun, or spending time with friends. It nurtures us, but we don’t regard it as serious. Since it has this lightness for us, we often find it hard to appreciate that play has an enormously important role in the lives of children.
Play is the natural occupation of children. It engages them and captivates them, filling many hours of their day. It’s hard not to envy the sheer joy of playing and being so happily engrossed, yet in a way this is also children’s “work.” Play promotes development and well-being in a staggering number of ways.
At play, children are very much engaged, deeply engrossed in their experiences. Play has many, many functions, touching on all aspects of development. Through play, children try out and practice skills in an arena where there are no significant consequences. Play provides a space for problem solving, imagining and creating solutions to challenges or finding ways of using materials in the real world as props in a pretend world. Play offers a space to gradually build social skills of negotiating, compromising, sharing, collaborating, as well as empathizing and regulating one’s own behavior and emotions. Play happens in environments that allow children to test, practice and build physical skills of all sorts.
For play to have its powerful effects, it needs to be largely child directed. In general, it needs to be created, managed and maintained by the players, and not by adults. In children’s play, adults are in the background, a potential resource if something is needed.
Today, there are many opportunities for children to participate in organized events and classes where they can find out about such culturally valued activities as soccer, softball, dance, swimming and gymnastics; or crafting, painting, and using computers. There are story hours and musical circles. Each of these are adult organized and adult directed. While these activities do introduce children to possibilities, help them discover their passions and skills, and provide them with a chance to interact with peers, they also tend to eclipse time for free play.
The next two posts are a two-part overview presenting the highlights of young children’s play and how it nurtures many aspects of development in early childhood. The first describes the types of social play young children engage in, and the second summarizes key ways play supports cognitive, social and emotional development.