While the concept of play may appear simplistic, research by the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that it can improve children’s abilities to plan, organize, get along with others and regulate emotion. Play can also help with language, math and social skills, and can help children cope with stress (“The Power of Play: How Fun and Games Help Children Thrive.” Healthy Children, American Academy of Pediatrics 2020).
Play takes on many different forms as a child learns and develops. It can vary from solitary to group, from general to culture- and gender-specific, and from cooperative to competitive. Play also looks different depending on the age of the child:
0-6 Months – babies may babble, smile, laugh and examine people and toys with their eyes.
6-12 Months – little ones may creep on their hands and knees, stand at a surface or take steps with their hands being held. They may also play imitation games and mimic scribble.
1-2 Years – children may help turn pages in a book, enjoy messy play and sort toys and objects by shapes and sizes.
2-3 Years – as children continue to develop, they may engage in simple make-believe activities, throw and catch larger balls, and participate in circle or interactive games.
3-4 Years – children may learn to ride a tricycle, engage in imaginary play and play games with others.
4+ Years – children may tell stories, enjoy playing in obstacle courses and being silly!
Now more than ever, it is important to celebrate play at all levels of a child's life. Encourage children to explore their world, from inside a kitchen cabinet to outside in the garden. Play games that encourage the use of hands and feet, such as ball games, puzzles, obstacle courses and arts and crafts.
Play should never be stressful or anxiety provoking! It is also crucial that children play with toys and items that are safe and appropriate for their age. Even though some toys may interest a child, they may impose a choking or safety risk, so remember to provide an appropriate level of supervision. And in today’s world of so many structured activities, it is vital that unstructured free play be a large part of a child's life.
For some children, the concept of play does not come easily. Some may have difficulty playing with others, or lack the imagination to make play meaningful. Others may have developmental challenges that limit their appropriate play skills. If you are concerned about a child's play skills, you should speak to your pediatrician. There are many types of professionals that can assist in the development of these skills, including physical, occupational, and speech therapists, behavioral/play therapists, teachers and psychologists.