Is your child playing enough? And do you know why it's important that they play?
We know kids play. The vast majority of their time, in fact, is spent playing. But when you think of your child spending his time usefully, do you think of him spending it playing or learning? In very young children, the two acts of playing and learning merge seamlessly. In fact, in very young children, playing is learning.
In children under the age of 5 (the preschool years), the best way to teach them is through play. So how much time should a child spend playing? All their time, really.
When you think of play, different images might come to your mind. In fact, there are many different kinds of play and each one has a very different role to play in your child's development.
Today, let's look at a very specific type of play - symbolic play. This can also be called pretend play or imaginative play.
This is a very important stage of play development which happens at around 18 months of age. At this stage, children start using one object to represent another. For example, you might find you toddler using a piece of cardboard as a phone, saying 'hello?hello?' into it. If your child has a set of bricks to play with, where he might have only been stacking them so far, you might now find him him stacking it to make a house. A spoon could be used as a spoon, as a stick for beating a drum with or as a mosquito swatter!
Why is the symbolic stage of play important? This stage of play is very important because so much of the concepts we use and understand in everyday life is represented through symbols. Think about it - speech, writing, mathematics are all forms of symbols. This stage of development therefore marks a very important transition.
In the grown-up world, we also use imagination to solve problems. Imagination is also an important way to understand other people's feelings. For example, if you saw your friend feeling sad, you would ask her why she is sad. When she describes something that has upset her, even though you've never been in such a situation yourself, you can imagine what that must feel like and empathise with her. We also plan and organise ourselves using our imagination. ('I'll first go to the shop. If the shop is closed, I will go to the tailor from there')
Children who go on to have difficulties developing language, often show problems in this area of play development. This could either be due learning difficulties or other difficulties like autism.
Which toys are useful for developing symbolic play? If a child is developing in a neurotypical fashion, you don't have to go out and buy expensive toys. She will use what she has to pretend it is something she does not have. After all, this is the whole point of pretend / symbolic play. If you want to help your child along a bit, try and get her some tea-sets, dress-up costumes, bricks, toy vehicles, people and animals. Try and balance out the amount of puzzles (or toys that you might see as learning resources) with toys that can be used for symbolic play.
How do you know if your child is struggling with this area of development? You might find your child consistently chooses toys like puzzles over other toys. You might find repetitive play, for example, constantly stacking bricks or lining up cars. Alternatively, if your child has learnt to play symbolically, but has not developed this skill further, she might play the same sequences over and over again.
What can you do to help? Enthusiastically, join in with your child's pretend play. When she comes to feed you some toy food, make a big fuss over how tasty the food is. Join in with your child's play. It's important in our current lifestyles, where families and societies are fragmented. It's no longer easy for a young child to stand at the door step and watch older kids playing and learn from them. You might therefore have to be their role model.
If your child does not 'get' pretend play yet, start it off for her. Take something of her toys that looks a bit like a phone and say 'Shall we phone grandma?' and say, 'Hello?' into it. Then pass it on to her and ask her to have a turn. If you have some toy people, put them into vehicles and drive them around.
Try and start with toys that your child is already interested in. And keep your eyes open to see which toys your child is naturally gravitating towards. Use those toys in your pretend play.
If your child has significant difficulties in this area, consult a speech therapist or a paediatrician. If your child has difficulties sitting still or listening well, you might find some useful ideas here. Looking for more ideas to help your child learn to speak? Look here.