I wrote this a while ago (it's on my old website but I'm moving most of the things here).
Young Children's Play
Most adults see children's play as mindless fun - something that keeps children busy. But play serves a higher purpose. Through play, children develop and refine their cognitive (thinking), language, socio-emotional and motor skills.
"I have ice-cream," Fatimah informs no one in particular as she picks a 'flower' and connects it to a 'stick'. She glances at Aliyah and picks another 'flower' and 'stick' to make one more.
"Here," she announces as she gives it to Aliyah. Aliyah takes it, looks at it then makes one herself.
"Ice-cream!" Aliyah declares.
In the above example, Fatimah is using cognitive skills to mentally transform the 'flower' and 'stick' to an ice-cream. She is using language to communicate with another child and she is using social skills to start a play episode with her. Her motor skills are demonstrated by the picking up of the 'flower' and 'stick' and connecting them using the fine muscles in her fingers and thumb and her hand and eye coordination.
Children's cognitive play can be seen in three stages (Piaget, 1962; Smilansky, 1968):
1. Functional Play (Birth to 2 years).
Children's play at this stage is characterised by the use of their senses (touch, taste, hearing, sight and smell) and motor movements (body, arms etc.). Which is why it is also referred to as sensorimotor play or practice play. Infants are basically practising the use of their senses and motors. Suggested play materials: Toys that make noises or movements such as rattles, squeeze balls and activity boards, and toys that can be put together and taken apart such as stacking cups, bucket with shapes.
2. Symbolic Play (2 to 6 years)
At these ages, children begin to use symbolic thought to transform an object or themselves into something else.
a) Constructive Play. Children use objects to represent other objects. As in the above example, Fatimah uses the 'flower' and 'stick' to represent ice-cream. Suggested play materials: Construction toys such as blocks, lego, connector toys, clay and play dough, and almost anything that children can construct with.
b) Dramatic and Sociodramatic Play. Children use imaginary roles to play. In dramatic play, the child plays by him/herself while pretending to be someone else. Whereas sociodramatic play involves a group of children who take on roles and coordinate their play. Suggested play materials: Props such as telephones, assorted uniforms/clothing, doctor's kit, and miniature toys such as cars, houses and cooking utensils.
3. Games with Rules Play (6 to 8 years).
By now school age children's thinking is more developed and they can, therefore, follow rules. Their play will be characterised by games that have a set of rules. This includes indoor play with board games and computer games and outdoor play with sports or children's games such as 'tips'.
Children's play is more than 'just play'. Through play, children are exploring the world and developing skills that will help them to live in the world. Notice in functional play that children use their senses and motors to explore their immediate environment and to practice using these skills. In symbolic play they are using their minds to explore the world- with its objects and its people. It is, therefore, important that parents and adults provide children with the appropriate environment to foster their play. This includes not only providing the appropriate materials but also providing the support.
Appropriate support means knowing at roughly what stage your child is at and preparing the environment. For example, if your child is at the dramatic play stage then there is no point in getting him/her to play soccer. The best that you can get him/her to do is to kick the ball - never mind following the rules! Likewise, if you have a one year old child then do not buy him/her that expensive toy house. The best that he/she can do with it is to bang it on something, throw it, suck it or chew it!
A final note: the ages of the cognitive play stages are rough estimates. Follow them loosely as children will differ in their rates of development. To determine what stage your child is at, observe him/her during his/her play. You will also be pleasantly surprised at what your child can achieve!
Piaget, J. (1962). Play, dreams and imitation in childhood. New York: W.W. Norton.
Smilansky, S. (1968). The effects of socio dramatic play on disadvantaged preschool children. New York: Wiley.