Creating an appropriate play environment for children will ensure they have the most opportunity for learning and developing key skills. However, to understand the best ways to support this we should first delve a little deeper into the world of play. Why exactly do children play, and what skills do they learn…
How has play evolved?
There have been several theories of why play exists, based on studies using observations from multiple animal groups. These theories range from the need to discharge a build-up of energy on the brain, to building up a selection of behavioural responses to unexpected events. It is interesting to note that as part of the studies carried out, that play within different animal groups is not uniform. In fact, out of 30 different phyla (this is the highest level of life as organised in taxonomy), only 5 were identified as participating in play. Not only that but out of these 5 groups, most were mammals.
What has since been agreed upon, as noted by Jeffrey Schank in ‘The evolution and function of play’, is that there are three levels of play. These are known as primary, secondary and tertiary. What is interesting is that although primary play is exhibited as a basic play type as part of development, the progress to secondary or tertiary levels is not guaranteed. It is stated that in order to achieve these more complex levels of play, that themselves lead to adaptive functions, an animal must first have resource abundance. So, it seems that these higher levels of play that are beneficial in supporting the progress to maturity are best developed where an enriching environment is present.
What types of play are there?
There are five key types of play as noted in an article by Peter Smith and Anthony Pellegrini in the Encyclopaedia on Early Childhood Development. Within this article, play is defined as an ‘activity done for its own sake, characterized by means rather than ends’. These five play types include the following:
- Locomotor play – the movement of the body
- Social play – interaction between peers
- Object play – playful use of objects
- Language play – use of vocabulary and meaning
- Pretend play – such as role play
So, let’s take a closer look at each of these play types. What skills do children learn, and how can we enhance and support these at home?
This type of play includes movement of the body, which is usually both big and strenuous. It can be running, climbing or jumping…which children love to do! This is a great form of exercise and is valuable for strengthening muscles, increasing endurance and coordination. A great piece of equipment for this type of play is a climbing frame. These can be used indoors and outdoors, and can include ladders, slides, ramps or bridges.
The additional bonus to this type of play is that it can lead to an increase in concentration when used to segment cognitive learning for children. Such is the case with playground breaks interspersed through the school day. It’s also a great way for children to expel some of that energy and to help them (and parents) get a better night’s sleep!
Any type of play that involves interaction between one child and another, or with a parent or an adult is classed as social play. Social play most commonly starts with children between the ages of 2 and 6 years. However, this may vary depending on the child and any other learning developmental delays that may be evident, such as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Other play types exhibited before social will include solitary and parallel. Solitary is playing alone, whereas parallel involves playing alongside another child, but not actually interacting with them. This type of play is more common around 2 to 3 years of age.
Playing with any object, be it a car, puzzle, doll or with toy bricks, is classed as object play. In fact, this is one of the earliest types of play. As babies grow and gain strength and coordination, they soon learn to grasp objects and pick things up. They may pass these from hand to hand and start putting objects in their mouths. This is all the beginning of exploring the things around them, which will become more complex as they grow. Once older, building blocks can be assembled, dolls can be fed, and cars can be rolled along the ground. These games can be great for developing problem solving skills, such as learning how to balance building blocks and create stable structures.
Language play like object play, also begins from a young age. As babies mimic sounds, and toddlers repeat words, these skills are always expanding. As children get older these language skills are enhanced further from home and nursery to include the following:
- Phonology – sounds of speech
- Vocabulary and meaning – known as semantics
- Grammar – known as syntax
- Pragmatics – the proper use of language in social situations
Once children begin to play pretend, they’re combining so many different important skills. Think of both the object and language play which is involved in setting up that delightful café in the dining room, to the dolls that are sat having afternoon tea. Children are great at playing pretend, and it really does teach them so many skills.
As they get older, they play with others, which is known as sociodramatic play. This usually begins from around 3 years of age. They can then progress to take on different roles, have more sequences of events to play out, and use an increasingly complex quantity of language constructions. A great resource to support this type of play is role play toys such as dressing up sets or play kitchens. We especially love play kitchens as we find that children love acting out and copying what you do at home.
Blue Kitchen Set
There are many forms of play that children practice and enjoy using as they learn and grow. These forms of play help them to piece together ways to behave and respond in different situations. They practice their language and communication skills, social skills and strengthen their bodies with physical exercise. With a purposeful, adaptive environment, these skills can be further developed whilst having fun.
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