Play behavior in children starts at birth and is crucial to their development. Play promotes a child’s social skills, fine and gross motor skills, builds their self-esteem and helps them relieve stress. It is a child’s job to play. In fact, according to developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, play is the leading source of development for preschoolers. Swiss developmental psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget linked children's play to cognitive development. Mildred Parten, sociologist and researcher at the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development, developed the theory of five stages of child's play. The stages of play theory rests on the idea that learning to play is learning how to relate to others.
A baby's play behavior is limited because their fine and gross motor skills are underdeveloped. Based on a study by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission titled "Relating Children’s Ages To Toy Characteristics and Play Behavior,” it is appropriate for babies to play with squeaky and color-contrasting toys that teach simple cause-effect relationships and offer sensory elements. Toys with textures, sounds, and contrasting colors for visual stimulation promote cognitive and motor manipulation. Around 4 months of age, babies begin actively engaging and handling their toys, which teaches them to reach, grasp, mouth push, pull and shake. Between 8 and 11 months, babies become goal-oriented and begin to understand simple cause-and-effect relationships.
According to the CPSC, toddlers are curious and love to explore, which has been made easier by their physical development. They enjoy play geared toward developing their strength and fine motor coordination. Balls, jungle gyms, rides on toys, sorting and stacking toys are also appropriate in this developmental stage. Toddlers will also engage in more complex pretend play, which involves friends or parents and the use of props. This age group also starts to enjoy crafts that involve coloring, gluing and cutting. They also begin what is known as representational play, such as construction play, which involves using material such as blocks to build something. They lack the ability to follow directions and step sequences, so open ended play opportunities are appealing. They learn to interlock the building materials to form stacks, and can perform simple interlocking building such as snapping, screwing and pressing.
Preschoolers ages 4 to 5 love construction play that builds upon previously mastered fine motor skills. Interlocking blocks, logs, nuts and bolts, and connecting straws in various lengths, sizes and shapes are key in a preschoolers play. They like to create realistic models of buildings, people and vehicles, so several pieces of each are needed. They will also begin to develop an interest in characters such as superheroes.
Elementary Aged Children
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, free child-driven playtime should be a priority and organized activities should not encroach on that. Children have developed the cognitive ability to follow directions and steps, and activities that require fine motor skills are popular pastimes. Peers and media also influence activities at the elementary age, while music and art can replace toy-driven play.