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An infant is smiling and looking up at a mobile. A toddler is playing with building blocks. A child is participating in his first little league game. All of these things have one thing in common: a child at play. But there is also another common denominator. Each of these children is gaining valuable skills they will need in the future, all while they are engaging in their favorite activities. Children’s development isn’t something that is taught in a classroom, it is initially learned through play. So yes, playtime is important and should be encouraged before, during, and after formal educational training starts. Your infant is actually learning something while staring at the shapes hanging over her crib.

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What is Child Development?

Child development is thought of as stages that children go through.

Childhood is generally defined as lasting from birth to 12 years old and is broken down into the following stages:

Child Development Birth Year
Sensorimotor birth to 18 – 24 months
Preoperational 2 years to 7 years
Concrete Operational 7 years to 11 years
Formal Operational 12 years and older

Some children spend more time in certain stages than others. If a child is developmentally delayed, they could be stuck in a stage until the delay is dealt with. This is a time when play can be an ideal indicator of developmental stages.

What Is Play?

Play happens when children interact with things, people, other beings, and even themselves. It’s a child’s way of exploring the world. As the child ages and his world expands (from the crib to the bedroom to the back yard, for example), how they play and what they desire to play with evolves. This, in turn, allows their play skills to evolve. When interactions with other children become more complex, children gain another set of valuable skills that they will develop and hone throughout their life.

Types of Play

  • Unoccupied Play
    This might not look like play. As a matter of fact, it might not look like the child is doing anything. But believe it or not, for infants and older babies, rolling around, kicking legs in the air, and waving their arms is a type of play. They’re exploring their space and taking in the sights and sounds around them. Toys that can stimulate an infant to enjoy playtime even more include mobiles with sound, crib-safe items of different colors and textures, and quiet soothing music. As a parent, you can watch your baby play and talk to him or her as they do. This lets the child know that what they’re doing is okay and that you are willing to play with them.
  • Independent of Solitary Play
    This is commonly referred to as the stage where toddlers sit quietly and play by themselves. However, not all toddlers engage in independent play in this fashion, especially the quiet part. Many kids, even from a young age, act out playtime and vocalize it. For instance, they might make the sound of a truck when then push one across the table or floor. Ideal toys from this age including interactive books, and things as simple as a box or a pan and a wooden spoon.
  • Onlooker Play
    This is the point in a child’s development when they like to see how others play. They’ve been playing themselves for several years at this point, but now they want to know what other children are doing. Not only are they interested in watching other children play, but the activities of adults are of interest to them too. They may or may not join in but seeing how others play helps them develop new ways for them to play. Take your child to the playground and let him or her watch the other children. Let your child watch you do things you like to do for fun. If they discover that the piano makes a really cool sound when you press down on the keys, play a song and let them see it and allow them to try out the keys, too.
  • Parallel Play
    At this stage, a child will play next to another child, even if they don’t choose to play with that child. This is the stage just before children start actually playing together. In an environment such as this, it’s good to have toys that can be shared easily, such as a big bag of blocks, a large container of crayons or plenty of playdough or clay. This will cut down on the number of meltdowns from toddlers who wanted to play with the toy the child next to them has.
  • Associative Play
    This is when kids start to play together, albeit still not in a collaborative way. By the age of three or four, kids will chase balls together, build things with Legos together, and even play games and do activities that require each child to take turns and wait for their turn to come around again.
  • Cooperative Play
    At this point, children are playing together in a variety of ways. Team sports, dance classes, and even at the playground, kids will play together and take turns waiting for the swings or the slide. It is also around this time that you’ll start to get glimpses into your child’s personality. They may be a team player, prefer to play in smaller groups, or like to play alone.

What Children Can Learn Through Play

Learning takes place in a plethora of ways, so it should come to no surprise that children actually learn and attain valuable skills while playing.

Some of the areas that are most influenced by a child’s ability and desire to play include:

  • Cognitive Skills
    These are the skills that help children problem solve. Matching colors and shapes and figuring out how to complete a task require cognitive ability. Play at all levels helps children develop skills so that when they reach an age where the ability is needed, it’s already there.
  • Social and Emotional Skills
    Learning through play allows children to gain the ability to cooperate, learn to negotiate, and develop the skills needed to navigate in society. It also helps a child strengthen their emotional skills since disappointment and compromise are things every person needs to know about.
  • Physical Skills
    Running, jumping, and climbing are all skills learned through play. As children get older, more of these skills are used and the abilities are fine-tuned, but even the infant kicking their legs and reaching for the mobile is working on physical skills.
  • Communication Skills
    Children learn to communicate by hearing other children or adults and doing the same or similar things. through play, communication is a fun and easy activity for you to work on and a child will develop skills that they will need later in life.
  • Connections Between Previous Experiences and Current Engagement
    Children will remember their best interactions and their worst and, to a certain degree, they will remember how they behaved. If a current situation is similar to a previous one, a child will remember and act accordingly, whether it was a good or bad interaction.
  • Decision-Making and Consequences
    Through play, kids will learn that actions have consequences. If a child breaks a rule and has to sit in timeout, or if a child is good and gets a reward, playtime can be used to teach these lessons.
  • Self-Control
    Learning to control one’s actions is a vital skill and children can begin to exercise self-control during playtime. An example is how a child reacts when another child is mean to them, or a teacher or another adult tells them they cannot do something.
  • Confidence
    As children spend more time at play, they become confident in the skills they are using. Running, skipping, the ability to throw a ball, and many other skills are learned and honed during playtime. This helps to boost the confidence of the child, making them more apt to try new things as they get older and other opportunities present themselves.
  • Critical Thinking
    Critical thinking is the ability to break down a concept, understand it, and make a decision or judgment. Children use critical thinking at all levels, from not touching a hot stove to running to first base after hitting a ball. As children grow older, they are more capable of dealing with more complex issues, but the groundwork is laid during play.
  • Creative Innovation
    Children can find countless ways to play with a single toy, and two children might approach the same toy very differently. The ability to see things from different perspectives and find new and innovative ways to accomplish tasks starts with kids playing.

Additional Social and Stages of Development

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