More than just child's play

Find out why play is important and what the different types are.

Michigan State University Extension recognizes that, for children, play is a part of everyday life. Whether at home, daycare or school, children of all ages spend a good portion of their day playing. While it may often look as though a child is simply playing, an enormous amount of learning and development is happening during that playtime. 

Why play is important:

  • Play is enjoyable and spontaneous.
  • It helps build social skills.
  • Play fosters gross and fine motor skills.
  • It helps aid in the development of cognitive or thinking skills.
  • Play assists with language development.
  • It encourages communication of emotions.
  • Play helps develops creativity and problem-solving skills.

As a child grows and develops, their play will progress. The Montana State University Extension lists some of the phases of play:

  • Unoccupied play: During early infancy, babies may appear to make unplanned movements with no definite purpose. Much of this movement is reflexive, yet still critical to early development.
  • Solitary play: From 3-18 months, babies will spend a lot of time playing on their own, watching, rattling and grabbing objects. This type of play is key to exploring the world around them.
  • Onlooker play: In the toddler years, children will watch other children play. It is a way for them to begin to learn to interact with others.
  • Parallel play: From 18 months to 2 years, children will play alongside other children without interaction. Role playing, dress-up and understanding concepts of ‘mine’ are areas of development during this stage.
  • Associative play: From 3-4 years, children will begin to play with others. They are starting to learn the “do’s and don’ts” of how to play with others. 
  • Social play: Beginning around 3 years, children will start to socialize with other children, share toys and ideas. They are beginning to learn values like fairness, kindness and cooperation.

In addition, there are different types of play children engage in including:

  • Motor or physical play like running, jumping, hide and seek, tag. They are naturally getting much needed physical activity just by playing.
  • Constructive play such as creating things, exploring objects or discovering patterns.
  • Expressive play where children can learn to express emotions. Adults can assist by providing experiences with different materials such as paint, markers, crayons, clay, and rhythm instruments.
  • Fantasy play helps children try new roles and situations by using their imaginations. “I’ll be the dad, and you be the baby!”
  • Cooperative play usually starts around age 4 when children begin to play games with rules, such as Hide and Seek or Tag. 

Children need play to develop, learn and express themselves. Encourage play by getting involved and playing with your child. Take time out of each day to play, laugh, learn and enjoy your child. Play not only helps with their development but by being involved in a child’s play, you are making positive memories and contributing to a strong bond between adult and child. Besides, it is a lot of fun! 

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