What “play” means is constantly evolving in a child’s early years. In the first year of life it’s mostly caregiver and object exclusive. They are figuring out their immediate world around them and that takes a lot of work through exploration! As parents, if we know the stages to look for we can help nurture our child where they’re at. We can provide them with things that will benefit them in THAT stage of play and facilitate the transition to the next stage when they show signs of being ready.
The first form of play starts as early as 4 weeks of age and comes in the form of the social smile. By 3-4 months of age that prosocial play continues and progresses to your child smiling and cooing when you give them face-to-face interaction. They begin to want to play the simplest form of peek-a-boo or participate in their favorite nursery rhyme as you act it out. This play is simple and repetitive as your child builds their most important relationship- with you!
Favorite Toys to use for Prosocial Play:
- YOU! Bring them close to you!
- A mirror so they can see their faces
- Sing and Read simple songs and books that you can show emotions with
The second stage of play occurs from ~4 months to 12 months. During this time your child will begin physically moving the objects around them. They will turn them around, feel the textures with their fingers through poking, listen for sounds they make, and even taste them! It is your childs way of learning to use their muscles through repetitive movements (Heidemann & Hewitt, 1992).
Favorite Toys to use for Sensorimotor Play:
- Black and White Picture Cards
- Texture Balls
- Sensory Baskets using household objects
Children begins pretend/imaginative play around the time of their first words. Between 12-18 months this looks like a child playing alone while pretending to do something they know well- taking a drink, walking the stroller, pushing a toy car. They are using realistic objects (real cup, baby stroller, etc.) to act out a familiar routine. Around 18-24 months, they begin to use this pretend play with a doll (feeding the baby doll a bottle or food) or copying actions frequently done by you (talking on a toy phone, cooking with pretend food and pots/pans) (Weitzman & Greenberg 2002).
Favorite Toys to use for Pretend:
- Play Kitchen with toy (and real) dishes, pretend food, and pots/pans
- Dolls with accessories such as baby stroller, blanket, bottle, etc.
- Toy cars, trucks, bus, or train, with little people that fit inside
- Blocks & Magnatiles
As your child learns to do these familiar routines and begins pairing words together around 24-36 months they will also start playing symbols for actual objects in pretend play. For example, a hairbrush may now become a pretend phone. A headband may become a dog collar. A broom may become a motorcycle!
Favorite Toys to use for Symbolic Play:
- Get out in nature- explore and create using rocks and sticks
- scarves to create forts and capes
- Blocks and Magnatiles
No matter what stage your child is in, meet them there. You can use all the fantastic toys out there or simply use everyday objects you find in nature or around the house. If you want some help making decisions on what to use I’ve made this for you! The important thing is to get down on their level, show interest in what they are doing and follow THEIR lead. When we can do these things they will learn through the repetitive nature of their play with you and others. And don’t forget- play is FUN and often SILLY!
- Heidemann, Sandra, and Deborah Hewitt. Pathways to Play Developing Play Skills in Young Children. Redleaf Press, 1992.
- Lowry, Lauren. “How and Why to Encourage Pretend Play.” The Land of Make Believe, http://www.hanen.org/Helpful-Info/Articles/The-Land-of-Make-Believe.aspx.
- Scott HK, Cogburn M. Peer Play. [Updated 2019 Jul 30]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK513223/
- “Stages of Play from 24–36 Months: The World of Imagination.” ZERO TO THREE, 26 Feb. 2015, http://www.zerotothree.org/resources/315-stages-of-play-from-24-36-months-the-world-of-imagination.
- Weitzman, E. Greenberg, J. 2002. Learning Language and Loving It: A guide to promoting children’s social, language, and literacy development in early childhood settings. Toronto: The Hanen Centre.