Inside: Read about the importance of preschool play for children’s development, including the different developmental stages of play and important benefits to note.
Early education specialists agree that play is the center of growth and learning. As Jean Piaget once said, “Play is the work of childhood.” Because of this, a large part of our roles as parents and educators is facilitating enriched play. The concept of play may seem largely unstructured and undefined, but in fact, there are so many styles of play that each benefit the child in different ways. Below discuss the developmental stages of play that children grow through, followed by some of the major benefits of play for preschool-aged children.
Developmental Stages of Play
As children grow, they naturally go through different stages regarding the way that they engage in play. The ages of each stage depend on the individual child. This includes factors such as their amount of exposure to social settings, and other personal factors such as behavioral barriers that limit play/social abilities. Each child grows at their own comfortable rate.
Solitary Play- This beginning stage of play for toddlers involves children engaging with their own selection of toys without interacting with other children. This type of play typically occurs until 2 years of age, when children begin to learn how to engage with their peers.
Parallel Play- This type of play is similar to solitary in that children are still not engaging in play with one another, but are playing physically near other children and may be interacting with the same toys and materials. This style of play typically appears between 2.5 and 3.5 years of age.
Associative Play- Children begin to share materials and toys with one another. While children are socializing and engaging, their play may still remain their own; The central plot/idea of their play is still individual as they have not merged ideas together. This is said as children engaging with others, but still following their own “story”. Associative play generally occurs around 3 years of age.
Cooperative Play – Commonly seen around the dramatic play area, cooperative play involves children socializing with one another to discuss play ideas and decide on roles. Typically, children will pause their play to discuss new ideas or make changes with one another. This higher level social play begins to appear between 4 and 5.5 years of age.
Also to note: Onlooker Play. This can occur at various ages in which the child will observe the play of other children from afar without interacting.
The Benefits of Play for Preschool-Aged Children
Play allows young children with opportunities to express their views and feelings. This is equally as helpful for guardians and educators, as it allows us to peek at how our children understand the world around them. Research shows that children who are able to express their emotional needs adjust to school settings more effectively.
Whether playing individually or with others, play provides the experience to act out various scenarios; through play, children can think about how others or how they themselves would react to real world situations. Discovering how to express emotions to others leads to the development of emotional regulation, in which children learn how to regulate their own emotions depending on the setting that they are in. Preschoolers who are able to effectively emotionally regulate are able to understand that school is not an appropriate place to scream about their anger, so they are able to calm their anger down enough from this point to express their anger appropriately.
Although play happens in many different forms, different types of activities offer a variety of physical benefits. Active movement play such as running during Red Light, Green Light or jumping through hopscotch help to develop large muscles in the legs and arms. Play involving smaller objects, such as stacking blocks or rolling play dough, help to strengthen the smaller muscles in the hands. These hand muscles are important for future writing skills and coordination.
Practice for Cooperation and Sharing
During the early preschool years, children often are in the developmental stage in which they view objects as their own. While they understand the concept of possessions belonging to them, toddlers require time to understand that objects can also belong to others instead of themselves. Play provides preschoolers with opportunities to learn about sharing and turn-taking. As preschoolers gain experience with sharing materials, they begin to understand that their own possessions will be returned to them after sharing, meaning that they build the trust to share more often. Dramatic play offers excellent opportunities for sharing materials, such as delivering pretend mail or serving play foods to others.
Executive Function Development
When engaging in enriched play that focuses on curiosity and discovery, children develop their executive functioning skills. Executive function development involves cognitive processes that work to allow us to recall previous information, plan our future actions, monitor our time, ignore distractions, and so much more. Children develop these cognitive skills naturally as they engage in open-ended play, in which they discover how materials interact with one another themselves and make it their own rather than being told directly what to do as the activity. A simple way to promote this beneficial style of play is to provide a variety of different materials and leave the objective open-ended. When planning a sensory bin, instead of simply providing cups and scoops which guides children to interact with the materials in a fixed way, add in a variety of tongs, ladles, and variously shaped containers. This allows children to interact with the materials and decide for themselves how to use these items most efficiently.
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