Developing play

Play is vital for providing opportunities to develop language, thinking, motor skills and social skills. Children participate in different types of play and their skills change and develop over time. Providing children with opportunities to develop these skills helps lay the foundation for strong skills in communicating, socialising and learning.

Some of the types of play that children experience include:

Sensory and locomotor play: This develops motor skills as well as strength and coordination and also provides excercise. It includes tasks such as puzzles, threading and craft actvities as well as running, skipping, climbing and exploring playground equipment.

Object or construction play: This inlcudes construction activities such as blocks and also objects such as doll and car play which develops into pretend play.

Language play: Children vocalise and chat to themselves.

Pretend play: Otherwise called symbolic play or fantasy play. Children pretend that an object or action is something else, such as a doll being a baby, or climbing a tree is exploring a jungle.

Socio-dramatic play: Pretend play with others. This play is particularly important for developing social skills, higher level language and thinking skills. It might include playing "families" or "schools" or acting out roles such as pirates or princesses.

The development of play skills:

Babies up to 10 months of age use play to explore the world around them. This includes touching, holding, shaking, throwing, banging, moving and mouthing objects. They tend to explore one thing at a time and though they enjoy common items they don't use them in the typical way, for example they may use keys for shaking and enjoy the noise they make but not try to open things with them.

Toddlers of 10 to 18 months begin to show an understanding of how objects are used and copy the actions they see others do. They may use a brush to try to brush their hair or try to put a key into a door. They may combine two objects together such as pushing blocks over with a car.

Older toddlers of 18 months to 2 years begin to show simple pretending. They may pretend to drink form a toy cup even though it is empty or pretend to eat from a spoon. They begin with actions directed at themselves, such as eating from a spoon and later begin to direct actions to others such as feeding mum with a spoon or putting teddy to bed.

Two year olds begin to do true pretending where they imagine that things are "real" such as eating pretend food. They also begin to pretend that an object is something else such as pushing a block along, making car noises and pretending that the block is a car. They can "imagine" objects that are not there such as putting a pretend hat on a doll. They can also pretend that they are something else, such as "being" a character such as a pirate or an animal such as a tiger.

Three to four year olds begin to combine actions and objects to act out scenes. They use a mixture of people, real objects and imaginary objects to act out sequences of actions and whole scenes such as a tea party, caring for babies or going to the petrol station. Play scenes may be based on things that the child has experienced or on things they have seen but not experienced such as stories and movies.

To help develop your child's play skills:

  • Offer a range of age appropriate toys and activities
  • Allow time for your child to play every day
  • Watch and follow your child's lead in the play
  • Encourage younger children to imitate actions with objects
  • Expland your child's actions by copying them then adding an extra action to the sequence
  • Gradually add new objects to your child's play to expand opportunities such as adding plastic animals to blocks.
  • Introduce new themes to expand your child's interests, for example if they like cars, try some boats or trucks.
  • Talk about your child's play by acting as a narrator. "Look teddy is eating his tea, he likes that food, now he is getting full".
  • Introduce a challenge or problem to the play to encourage thinking skills. "Oh no teddy is thirsty now, what can he do?"
  • Provide opportunities to play with children of a similar age to develop cooperative play.

If you are concerned about your child's development, social or language skills check Our website for more information. Watch out for future blogs on developing play for different ages. Why not follow so you don't miss out.

This blog is based on information from a workshop by Alison Winkworth "Creative pretend play in language intervention" (2012) presented by Speech Pathology Australia and includes information from Paiget (1951), McClune (1995) and Nicolich (1977).

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