On the Meaning of “Play”

Many of my posts involve kids’ activities: crafts, outdoor fun or just random things we are doing to stay active or pass the time. I think of all of these things as play. So I thought you might be interested to know where I stand on child’s play. What play is, how we do it, and why I think it’s super duper important.

I believe that children’s work is play and that all play promotes learning. Toys and activities have a very important and fun role in play. But to get the most out of playtime, the things we give our kiddos should be appropriate for their developmental stage. When activities are developmentally appropriate, they are fun. When they aren’t, they’re  frustrating.

Even though I have three kids, and soon to be four, I have a hard time recalling from memory what my kids were doing developmentally at any point in time. Knowing our children’s developmental stage is important because it helps determine what activities and toys they will enjoy and which will support their growth. To help you choose toys and activities that are just right for your kiddo (and so I have a handy reference when I need it), I’ve created a brief play-by-age guideHere you’ll find a short description of what kiddos tend to be doing at different ages/stages and what toys/activities tend to best support that age’s developmental objectives.

Keep in mind that all kids are different and they develop at different rates, and that children use toys differently at different stages. A four-month old might use stacking blocks to grasp, mouth and enjoy watching them topple over when knocked down. A 12-month old will use those same blocks to start stacking, and a 3-year old will organize them into groups by color and size. As such, you can use the same toys and activities for different ages in different ways — and save money along the way!

Learning and Play Grow from the Literal to the Abstract

As you think about how your kiddo will play with her toys at any given age, it’s helpful to remember that early learning progresses from the concrete to the abstract. Thus, children’s play will follow a similar pattern. Infants and young toddlers are very concrete and literal in their play. But as children approach school age, their play becomes more abstract – they pretend with objects and roles. This is one of the reasons why toys can get a lot of mileage over these different stages – serving one purpose for your infant and serving another when she is in the toddler years.

Here’s an example of how play with the same object moves from concrete to abstract. An infant will be mesmerized with the light reflections coming off a mirror. When she is four-months old, she will enjoy looking at herself in that same mirror. When she is a year, she will haul the mirror around the house and repeatedly put in and out of a basket. At four-years old, she may pretend to be a beautiful princess, and her mirror may play the role of her magic wand, turning frogs (or little brothers) into princes.

Children Learn Best when Allowed to Explore with Minimal Direction

As adults, we’ve been conditioned to believe there are right and wrong ways to do just about everything. And, as adults, we instinctively want to “teach” our child these right and wrong rules. But, to get the most out of play, I think children should be encouraged to explore their world with minimal direction and correction from us.

What does this look like? Well, your child may insist on putting her doll’s clothes on backwards, or putting the blue ball where the red ball “should” be. Resist the urge to correct her (I know it’s hard!). Unless what she is doing is dangerous, let her explore. Chances are, in time, she too will decide that the doll’s dress works best when the buttons close in the back and she’ll get more satisfaction from putting the blue ball in the blue hole.

Children Often Figure Things Out Without Our Help

On a similar note, our natural instinct is to jump in and help our kiddo when they are struggling. Maybe the puzzle piece isn’t fitting just right, or the firetruck is getting stuck on the transition piece between the kitchen and dining room.

Kids learn to deal with frustration by working through these small problems during play. Yes, the 10 seconds they are fumbling with the puzzle piece can feel like 10 minutes, especially if you fear they will throw the piece on the floor and cry in defeat (what, don’t tell me that doesn’t happen at your house!). But give your child the time to work it out herself. She’ll learn that indeed, with a little effort and perseverance, she can do it. By all means, however, if tears ensue or you know the task is too challenging for your child, give her a hand. But don’t do for a child what the child can do for himself.

Hands-On Play is Best

Maybe it’s because, so far, I’ve had all boys … but I believe kids learn best when they play with as many senses as possible. That’s why you will rarely see me post an activity that involves worksheets, flashcards or other traditional “school” tools. Kids will get enough of this “seat work” in school. I wholeheartedly believe that kids learn best by manipulating toys/tools – this kinesthetic approach allows them to really experience the lesson. As Maria Montessori said, “Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment.”

Remember, play is how your child learns about his world. The toys and activities you offer him can go a long way in supporting his natural development, getting him ready for the exciting next stage in his young life.


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