Development Play — Stages Of Play And Why It Matters

The role of play within the development of children is hugely significant. As a Certified Play Expert (CPE), it is my responsibility to do everything that I can do to encourage developmental growth through play. From a surface-level point of view, it’s not difficult to conceptualize how children learning to play on their own and one another can greatly impact their ability to socialize and negotiate later in life. Learning how to imagine in the first place is a key element of learning to play, as is orchestrating a framework of rules within a game that all parties can agree upon and act within. There are integral developmental aspects that include communicative, cognitive, social, physical, and even sensory advancements in growing individuals. But to put it more plainly than that, children who don’t learn how to play with each other often grow up to be adults who are lacking in an interpersonal capacity. We must learn how to be creative while taking the ideas of others into account — such an ability to negotiate is a fundamental aspect of more serious matters adults are faced with in both professional and personal settings.

That’s why we at Maziply Toys, believe that play is the foundation of our children’s ability to grow. As parents, we believe it is our mission to unearth more about each facet of play and all that we stand to gain from it. Our article is dedicated to understanding the stages and importance of play within the development of children. This topic, as you can no doubt imagine, is nuanced, as it impacts development in a range of ways, a few of which we listed above. And while we are passionate about sharing academic knowledge regarding this topic, we write this article in the good faith of remembering our original mission here at Maziply Toys — "to bring joy to children with fun and inspiring toys while also bringing out the inner-child of adults". We can’t underestimate the significance of play. But we also can’t forget about the simple, self-evident joy of play in the first place!

With that in mind, we are thrilled to discuss the importance of play from a more general perspective, before moving onto the stages of play within infants, toddlers, and children.

The Importance Of Play

Play can be described as an activity that is freely chosen, intrinsically motivated, and personally directed. It separates itself from other kinds of activities in that it is not serious yet it has an axiomatic, self-absorbing quality about it. Said another way, there is no apparent goal to play aside from the pleasure of playing — a characteristic that sets itself apart from the rest of ordinary life. In this way it is a fundamental,  ubiquitous component of humanity. And we aren’t just talking about kids playing either, as the psychiatrist Stuart Brown has noted that play is “the basis of all art, games, books, sports, movies, fashion, fun, and wonder — in short, the basis of what we think of as civilization.” (Brown 2009). At perhaps the deepest level of analysis, play is the “why” behind our reason for daily work — it’s our light at the end of the tunnel, a framework for expression and beauty to unfold.

Learning And Development

Still with us? Can you tell we are fervent about play? We hope so, because we are just getting going! Beyond the idea of play making up the very fabric of civilization, there also exists an ever-growing body of research that examines how play impacts the learning and development of children. To gain a deeper understanding of this idea, it’s instructive to consider the perspectives of a variety of disciplines regarding this topic: research hailing from neuroscience, education, anthropology, evolutionary, cognition, and developmental psychology all weigh in on the matter. Several of these studies and their findings are highlighted below:

  • In a study of 3-7 year-old-children, “Standing Sentry” by Manuilenko in 1975, research found that children were able to perform tasks in play at much higher levels than in non-playful contexts.
  • From an emotional-development perspective, Bronstein (2006) reviewed prior studies and determined that there is a universality of pretend play, showing the dynamic inter-relationships between the complexity of this play type alongside children’s emotional well-being.
  • In 2010, Whitebread reviewed and confirmed a study of 3-5-year-olds (in 32 different preschool settings), which demonstrated that self-regulatory behaviors were most commonly observable in children during collaborative, child-initiated play. This is to say that if children made up a game with other children on their own accord, they’d be more likely to follow the rules that they had formulated.
  • In 2002, Marcon discovered that playing learning in preschools (in the United States) was correlated with improved short and long-term academic, motivation, and well-being outcomes by the end of primary school in the students studied.
  • A German study performed by Darling-Hammond & Synder in 1992, 50 play-based kindergartens were compared with 50 “early learning centers.” By the 4th Grade, the children who attended play-based schools were found to be more advanced in social and emotional adjustment, reading, and math.
  • From an anthropological perspective, the case can be made for the importance of play irrespective of culture. In 2009, Gray reviewed anthropological studies of surviving hunter-gatherer societies which observed the unfettered, playful lives of children in these societies. Gray argues that humans have developed and evolved to be able to learn through playful activity. In 2012, Gray furthered his research on the matter by determining the existence of a strong relationship between the decline of play opportunities for children in the USA over the last fifty years along with a disconcerting increase in child psychopathology. That is to say, as the last couple of generations have played less often, there has been a surge in mental illnesses among children in the USA.

Stages Of Play

As you can tell from just a brief sampling of the existing research, there is a lot to be said for the importance of play — and from an array of perspectives at that. Now that we’ve established a framework of importance, we’d like to highlight the agreed-upon stages of play from an aged-based perspective. Keep in mind that play serves a variety of functions at any given time. Beyond simply being enjoyable, a young child who is consistently engaging in play can improve communicatively, physically, sensorially, cognitively, socially, emotionally, and in other ways! Below you’ll find a breakdown of the various stages of play along with practical information about the kinds of toys you can use to help facilitate the kind of growth that should be taking place during a given stage.

Infant Play - Birth To Six Months

Beginning at about the tender age of three months, infants are able to begin to move their bodies with intention, as opposed to the more reflex-dominant movement that occurs prior to this point. From this point on, little ones begin to become more observant about the outside world — they start seeing objects and exploring their environment. They begin to discover toys and other people through their senses. Hence, sensory play is the primary type of play during ages three to six months.

The great news here is that you, the parent, are the person who gets to introduce interpersonal play to your little one, however sensory-based and simple it might be. It’s obviously still a special time. But these interactions not only bond you to your child, they help you get to know them as well. You’ll notice when they are disinterested, tired, or if they are ready to connect with you through play yet again. Being able to read your child’s signals, especially before they are verbal, is a key part of loving them by getting to know them.

Sensory Play - Vision, Oral, Grasping, And Tummy Play

Vision - During this time, a baby’s vision is constantly improving. They’ll be able to distinguish between colors more easily while also being able to see farther and farther away as time passes. You should notice that objects with a high degree of color contrast will catch your baby’s eye more easily than others.

Fun Fact: Did you know that all babies are born color-blind? They develop the ability to see colors anywhere from a week to six months old.

Mouthing - Babies also love orally exploring their world during this time. Because the mouth is a home to a nerve center that is highly developed, babies are able to learn a lot more about a particular object by mouthing it. They can determine texture, size, taste, and even function from mouthing objects, which starts as early as four months. This means parents should be diligent about monitoring which objects their babies are mouthing. Obviously, the objects in question should be safe, first and foremost. Beyond that, you can take the time to note which kinds of objects interests your baby. It’s possible that you’ll be able to notice patterns, making you able to cater your child’s toys to their intrinsic preferences!

Grasping - During this time, your baby will be able to grasp objects that they desire, making this period an important point in the initial development of eye-hand coordination. In just a short amount of time, babies will be able to pass objects from one hand to the next, mouth them, and do with them as they please. They’ll even begin to explore you as well — touching and grabbing your nose, hair, fingers, glasses, and whatever else catches their eye. During this time, consider using colored rattles or toys that make noises when shaken or touched. We recommend giving your baby a choice between rattles during this time, placing both of them within reach and letting them decide for themselves whichever they prefer. Once they have one in hand, offer them another — allowing them to practice holding two objects at once.

Tummy-play - In terms of physical development during this stage, there’s nothing quite like tummy-time. While it might not look like much to our adult eyes, there’s a lot going on in terms of muscle development in your baby’s neck and core. He or she will start by only being able to lift their head up for a few seconds at a time, but, gradually, your little one will be able to push with their hands, pivot in a circle to reach for toys, and eventually explore their world by beginning to crawl. Not only is this a physically significant practice, but it helps your baby connect the desire of a specific physical position (or grasping a nearby toy) with the action of moving the body to achieve it. This helps build your baby’s cognitive ability to problem-solve in a basic way, connecting thought to action!

Recommended Toys For Infants

  • Balls
  • Rattles
  • Clackers
  • Gyms
  • Shape Sorters
  • Mobiles
  • Rollers
  • Mirrors
  • Teethers
  • YOU
  • High-Contrast Toys

Toddler Play

From ages 18 months to 3 years, synapses in the brain grow in number to reach about 1,000 trillion — a figure that represents twice the density of the typical adult brain. This shows how ready the toddler brain is to absorb information and learn. More specifically, structures that are particularly sensitive to social-emotional response, motor skills, and language develop significantly during this time.

When you step back and think about it, it makes sense. Toddlers are learning to run, jump, climb, ride, talk, and control themselves during this time. Essentially, they are learning how the world around them works and how they fit into it themselves.

With regards to play in particular, toddlers like to learn how toys can be used together. Blocks, filling and emptying water, dirt, and other composite activities are popular during this time. For parents, a good start here is to make sure your child has access to these kinds of toys, if possible, and then let them loose to discover them. After this, you can show them new ways to use these toys. Start simply, and move on with complexity, making sure your child can replicate what you are showing them. Then praise them for playing along with you and being successful! This will cultivate their thirst for learning new ways to use objects.

Social Skills

Right around your child turns one, they will likely start showing an interest in their peers. They might make a friend — and even if they aren’t yet able to speak with their friend, there is a good deal of communication happening between them. They might make a friend for just a few minutes on a playground as both display a vested interest in the sand, but sharing an experience is the first step toward genuinely positive social behavior! Activities that tend to bring young toddlers together include water and sand play, making music with basic instruments, basic art activities, or other simple games like easy puzzles.

Make-Believe!

Between 24 and 36 months, toddlers start to be able to understand what suspending reality and playing pretend means — and how fun it can be! This cognitive development opens a brand new world without limits to them. Your couch is now your rocketship to explore and your sibling your trusted co-pilot. As your child’s ability to use symbols develops, so too will their creative ability to imagine develop in complexity. Fostering this wonderful capacity with the right kind of toys is key. Think about pretend food, toy cars, blocks, stuffed animals, dolls, doll houses, and the like!

Problem-Solving

As your child advances through toddler-dom and moves onto becoming a young child, their ability to problem-solve will develop. This cognitive development can take the shape of solving simple puzzles, playing memory-based games, or figuring out mazes or ring stacks for the very first time.

If you find that your children are too rambunctious for the kind of focus that these problem-solving activities might involve, try to connect the activity with physical activity to help keep them engaged. Each time you accomplish something within your given activity, you can tell them it means they need to jump or clap, or run around the room!

Toys For Preschoolers And Toddlers

  • Balls
  • Dolls
  • Simple Craft Kits
  • Blocks
  • Books
  • Costumes
  • Pretend Play
  • Finger Paint
  • Stickers
  • Musical instruments
  • Toy Trucks And Cars
  • Shape Sorters
  • Ring Stacks
  • Toys That Can Be Pushed Or Pulled

Post-Toddler Life

Below we will break down ages 3-6, 6-9, and 9-14 from a more general perspective. At the risk of painting with too broad of a brush, we want to briefly touch on each of these age ranges, though we aren’t able to take as deep of a dive as we have with the play of infants and toddlers.

  • 3-6 - Between these years, the brain undergoes the fastest period of growth for the networks that make up the frontal lobe. Memory, problem solving, and general processing all develop during this time. It is during this time that playing with toys begins to serve a greater purpose for children in the sense that toys and their functions are more connected with imagination and experiences. In this way, toys can lose their strict structure in favor of being used as children see fit. Their simple pretend games give way to complex constructed games. This means that pretty much the whole wide world of toys can be utilized, from medical kits to dress-up costumes to dolls, to toy people to tool sets to finger puppets and beyond! This is also a time where children can learn to play simple board games, which typically involve more structure than they might be used to. Learning to play with other children and adults while adhering to a set of rules isn’t always easy, but it’s a huge part of the development process. We’d also recommend choosing books that match your child’s interests, as this will help motivate them to learn to read and write!
  • 6-9 - From ages six to nine, the “pruning” of synapses has begun. This means that motor and sensory areas of the brain have been solidified, and the trimming of the unneeded synapses can ensue. From a neurological perspective, this is also the time of life where higher brain “control” centers come to fruition, which has the net effect of children being able to pay attention for longer while also being able to show self-control more often. Once children reach primary school, they will have the fundamental aspects of social skills, language, and movement down pat, but it’s still vital for them to be able to develop them while practicing with their peers. This is a time where more complex games can be introduced, be it in organized athletics, with card games, or even something like roller skates or ice skating! Moreover, from a creative perspective, most children are able to handle dynamic, imaginative activities. It might be a craft project that has multiple steps, a chemically-involved science experiment, or something cool that only you as a parent could think of! Whatever it might be, do your best to tailor the activity to your child’s interests.
  • 9-14 - During this preteen stage, the trimming of the synapses continues, as does the progression of the frontal lobe, the “executive” of the brain. Essentially, all boats rise during this period, as children see development in areas social, emotional, cognitive, spatial, and beyond. Play becomes more group-based and equipment-laden, as being involved in organized sports or drama shows. On the other hand, this is a time of life where adolescents can begin to express themselves as an individual. Whether it be through music, painting, model-building, sewing, skateboarding, athletics, cooking, or otherwise, we’d encourage our parent-readers to do their best to adhere to their child’s interests — within reason. Obviously, it’s not going to be possible, let alone a good idea, to get a horse for horseback riding one year only for the next year’s request to have nothing to do with the previous hobby. Our two cents is that children’s interests must be cultivated, of course, while children also learn the value of responsibility and persistence in reference to hobbies!

Play At Home

Despite the many benefits of cultivating play, American children are playing less at school and at home than perhaps ever before. We at Maziply are firm proponents of maximizing quality time spent playing in the family setting. Enjoy each other! Doing so will pay a variety of dividends down the road. Have a question about learning through play? Come on in and ask a CPA. Shop Maziply Toys for all the educational toys you could ever need! 

Development through play

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