Play is accepted as a universal theory of development, meaning that across time (within the era of early childhood developmental social science) and space (across the globe), children learn primarily through play. There are five distinct types of play that each play a different role in cognitive and social growth.
Physical Play: Physical skills and health are directly observable in physical play, but it also provides opportunities to develop perseverance and self-regulation. Understanding that not all goals are achieved on the first attempt pushes children to try again and again. Knowing when and how to approach a situation lends to managing emotions and behavior according to the demands of the situation at hand.
PARENT TIP: Allow children to horse play in a safe environment. It is in children’s nature to learn and test their physical limits and internally negotiate where those limits lie. The emotions that accompany being challenged add to their emotional spectrum and build relationships.
Play with Objects: Manipulation of objects and the refining of fine motor skills are obvious benefits from playing with objects. Cognitive and social benefits include problem solving and applying reason. Millions of cerebral pathways are formed every day with the introduction of new manipulatives.
PARENT TIP: Allow children opportunities to explore a wide variety of objects in the house, not just toys or things made for children. Safe kitchen items are a wonderful supply of nesting materials (Tupperware, utensils, plastic bowls/cups, etc.), sensory opportunities (rolling pins, dough, sponges, brushes, etc.), and STEM (cooking, mixing, timers, etc.).
Symbolic/Semiotic Play: Intangible means of human communication: Dance, language, mathematics, gesture, etc. are all types of play that simultaneously communicate feelings, imagination, and reflect their interpretation of the world around them.
PARENT TIP: Be explicit with your children when interpreting the behaviors of others and their own behaviors and how they can be received by others. Expose children to various types of communication and expression such as dance and music so they may understand that these are also avenues for communicating.
Pretend Play: Starting at age one, children incorporate object substitutions that eventually evolve into role playing and other more complex scenarios. This type of play supports social competence and expressive language skills that are key to developing relationships and self-esteem.
PARENT TIP: When you play with your children, challenge them to take on various roles, explore ideas of what they think those roles are, and explain the nuances of human behavior. Also, turn your chop sticks into wands and create a spell to turn your dog into a unicorn…bottom line: pretend.
Games with Rules: From hide & seek to peek-a-boo, children love games with a structure because they have fun mastering a skill and fully participating in the activity, as well as learn planning and strategy skills.
PARENT TIP: Play familiar games with your children, but also encourage them to make up their own games with a set of rules they determine. The complexity of their game will provide you an informative window into their expanding cognition and understanding of game dynamics.
VP of Education