Hard Wired to Play

by Dana Smith Bader
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At the nursery, when we do our admissions interview, nine times out of ten, the parents will say they are sending their children to nursery so they can become more social, so they can learn to play with other children. After about two weeks of watching their children on the cameras, the parents start calling to tell us they are worried that their children are not social enough because they do not see them playing with the other children. Of course, we tell them not to worry because children take time to learn how to play with others, some more time than others, but most children eventually learn to play with others because, like big humans, little ones are innately social. They are also hard wired to play. It’s how they learn about and understand the world around them.

However, what parents do not always understand is that it takes quite a bit of time for children to learn to play cooperatively with others. That’s because there are different types or stages of play, and each one is a stepping stone to cooperative play. These six types of play, first identified by American sociologist Mildred Parten Nehall are applicable for children ages 2 to 5 years, and they include the following:

Unoccupied Play – In this type of play, the “infancy of play,” the baby or toddler creatively moves his or her body with no purpose other than it feels good and is interesting to do so. During this type of play, which is the most basic type, your child is completely free to think, move, and imagine. Most often, babies playing on a play mat, kicking their feet and moving their arms while watching the dangling toys suspended from the soft bars over the mat, demonstrate this type of play. In this such play, even the smallest object is full of wonder, so toys for this type of play can include soft blocks with different colors and textures. Try not to choose toys that make a lot of noise with blinking lights for this type of play because they can startle your little one.

Independent Play – This type of play is the when your child plays alone, with little or no reference to what others around them are doing. It is also the type that results in most of the calls from new admissions’ parents at the nursery. Nevertheless, it is an incredibly important stage of play because children cannot bond properly with other children until they are fully comfortable with themselves, especially when they find themselves in a new environment with other children. Also, this type of play is solitary, but it is not necessarily quiet. Depending on the nature of your child, he or she may get through this type of play by reading a book quietly in the corner or by singing show tunes into a pretend microphone.

Onlooker Play – In this type of play, your child observes the play of other children, while not actually playing. Although much of this play stage is inactive, it is still significant because this is your child’s first step in learning how to play with other children. By observing the play of other children or even adults, your child learns how to play in different environments with different people. As a result, to help your child better prepare in this stage for cooperative play, it is important to expose your child to many different types of play in varying environments. For instance, you can show your child what you like to play when you garden, play an instrument, or work a puzzle. You can also bring your child to a park so he or she can observe how the children play in the sandbox or on the slide. It is also important to let your child watch older siblings to understand how they play, move, and communicate while playing.

Parallel Play – In this type of play, your child plays beside, rather than with, other children. For instance, he may enjoy stacking blocks alongside other children, or she may enjoy playing in the water or sand tray next to another child in the nursery. As such, ideal toys for this stage of play include things that are easily shared, such as blocks, cars, soft play equipment, water and sand trays, and sticker books with plenty of stickers to share.

Associative Play – In this stage, your child plays with other children, but the children do not organize their play toward a common goal. For instance, around the age of 3, your pre-schooler will experience a longer attention span and will really begin enjoying the social aspect of other children. Therefore, your child will play together with the other children but not necessarily as part of a team. Your child will play and socialize at the same time.

Cooperative Play – The final stage of play is cooperative play. Here, you can see the beginning of teamwork. Your child plays with others for a common purpose. For instance, your child may role play cooking dinner with his friends, or she may work together to build the tallest tower in the world. They can also begin to play games together like football or tennis, take turns swinging each other on a swing, and they can even put on a puppet show with friends.

Each of these stages of play accomplishes some serious goals cognitively, socially, and physically. Therefore, it is important as a parent that you remain patient and allow for plenty of unstructured time for your child to explore and play, especially when your child enters nursery. Also, remember, children are hard wired to play, and playing with others is the end goal, not the first step. As Pablo Neruda once wrote, “A child who does not play is not a child,” so give your children the chance to play, give them the chance to be children, in their own way, in their own time.

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