The stages of play

Responding to your child at her level is crucial. Babying a four-year-old will stop her from testing her capabilities and developing, while having expectations beyond your child’s years will set her up for early anxiety and the possibility of “performance failure” and disappointment.

Play develops through a number of stages:

All children begin by playing alone. Solitary play then transforms into parallel play (playing alongside peers) and imitative play (that may involve peers). Finally, there is cooperative play when a child learns to share toys and playtime. Newborn babies are so attached to their mother that they have no notion of being separate or having their own identity. By twelve months a unique personality will be more apparent, but your little one will not be ready to play cooperatively with other children until her brain has developed more fully and language skills have developed to a point where communication with other children becomes more effective.

  • Exploratory play—using the senses of touch, taste, and smell to comprehend new experiences.

  • Relational play—using things as they are meant to be used. For example, using a fire truck to pretend to extinguish a fire.

  • Symbolic play—using an object as something else. For example, using a house brick as a stove to cook on.

12–15 months

At this age your child needs guidance from you on how to play. For example, show her how a toy functions and then allow her to explore it in her own way. You may notice early signs of play activity, especially if you demonstrate things. She may watch other children, but will play alone, with no attempt to interact with another child.

16–20 months

Your child will still need to be guided in her play at this age, and will constantly watch and imitate. Imaginative or “pretend” play will develop later. She will become more aware of other children and be more likely to copy their actions and play alongside them.

Leading playtime

Young children are usually fascinated by older children and very willing to follow their lead, which can accelerate their social skills.

21–24 months

By the time your child is two, there will be the first signs of role reversal in your relationship. You will suddenly find that you are the recruit in her play and your role will have evolved into one that supports and encourages rather than leads. She will begin to understand the concept of, for example, pretending to drink from a toy cup and enjoy creating her own world and stories. As she learns to direct her play, she will develop reasoning skills and a sense of achievement. Importantly, this also sows the early seeds of self-esteem and self-confidence.

25–30 months

By this age your toddler will be able to suggest a story line and will look to you to elaborate the scenario and to add new developments. Your child will now be able to play alongside other children. When playing together, children will give a running commentary and start to tell each other what to do, but they will not yet be ready to co-operate or plan a joint activity.

31–36 months

At this age your toddler will begin to think for herself and begin to experiment with the difference between fantasy and reality, through basic imaginative play, using props. By the age of three, children can understand the concept of sharing, but will still find it hard to accept it in practice.

Children are quite territorial at this age and tend to think of toys and any other objects they are attached to as an extension of themselves—even when they do not belong to them and they are not using them. They have a short attention span and are too egocentric to understand that other people have needs or feelings. Egocentric does not mean selfish in this context. Your toddler is at a stage where, when she closes her eyes, she thinks that no one can see her—because she can’t see anyone. Her view of the world is her whole world view. A child that is refusing to share is not being wilfully disobedient, but is simply too young to be able to fully understand your reasoning. Learning how to respond to others, share, compromise, and put the needs of others before yourself are highly sophisticated skills that take years to acquire.

37–48 months (and beyond)

By the age of four your child may play independently and adopt an imaginary role. She will understand the difference between characters and roles and have clear ideas about a story line. Some (up to the age of eight) will have an imaginary playmate and may find it difficult to tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

Stages of brain development

Your child’s brain develops in stages. The “lower” brain areas, which drive instinctive and emotional responses, develop first. The “higher” rational brain, which distinguishes humans from animals and reptiles, develops later. It contains the frontal lobes, which have only partially developed at the time of birth. Not until the age of three will they have matured to a point where they will help a child to manage her emotions or curb her impulses. The need for instant gratification can be overwhelming, which is why toddlers are prone to tantrums when they can’t have what they want. Varied play helps children to start to learn self-control and will develop the behavior-regulating function of the frontal lobes of the brain.

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