Children of all ages play and enjoy playing. Psychologists have found that play is important for children not only because they enjoy it so much, but because it also plays an important role in promoting social, emotional, and cognitive development. During play, children learn skills that help them interact with other children and adults, and they also gain knowledge about the world around them. Psychologists have studied the types and amount of play that are evident in children at different ages.
Children have been noted to engage in four different types of play during the preschool years. Early in life, infants play alone and engage in what is called solitary play. Later, between 2 and 3 years of age, parallel play emerges as children begin to play alongside other toddlers with similar materials, but without influencing each other much. Next, associative play begins to include true social interactions when children engage in a common activity and exchange toys and comment on the behavior of each other. Finally, at around 5 years old, cooperative play emerges, when children begin to work together and assume reciprocal roles while pursuing shared goals during their play. For example, children take leadership roles, discuss rules, and negotiate responsibilities. This cooperative play is social play of the most complex type. Cooperative play is especially important because it allows children to learn social rules such as sharing, turn taking, cooperation, and dealing with disagreements. Also, this type of play leads to the development of meaningful friendships.
While more complex types of play develop as children grow older, the less mature forms of play may still be present but are less common. Parallel play should be less frequent as children grow older and will be largely replaced by cooperative play. Psychologists often observe young children’s play activities to assess their level of development. If a child does not begin to engage in cooperative play by about 5 years of age, this may be seen as an indication of an underlying cognitive or social-emotional deficit. For example, the inability to engage in fantasy or social play is a common feature of children with autistic spectrum disorders.
Cooperative play not only becomes more frequent as children develop socially, cognitively, and emotionally, but it also becomes more complex. When children begin to enter into cooperative play episodes, they are often quite simple interactions, such as two children working on a puzzle together. As children get better at this type of interaction, the play gets more complex. For example, an older child may engage in a fantasy play episode of “cops and robbers” with a group of children. This complex type of cooperative play is often called sociodramatic play. It is more complex and provides children with experiences rich in cognitive and social challenges. It is important that children master sociodramatic play because here they act out and respond to one another’s pretend feelings. They explore and gain control over fear-arousing situations when their pretend play involves such things as monsters or doctor visits. Also, while involved in such play interactions, children must create and manage complex plots and resolve disputes via negotiation and compromise.
Finally, there are clear connections between the complexity of preschoolers’ play and social competence with peers. Preschoolers who play in cognitively complex ways are less likely to be aggressive or withdrawn around their peers and are more outgoing than children with impoverished play. Also, the complexity of preschoolers’ play can help predict how socially and academically successful children will be during early elementary school.
- Fernie, D. (1988). The nature of children’s play. Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED307967). Retrieved from http://www.kidsource.com/kidsource/content2/nature.of.childs.play.html
- Heidemann S., & Hewitt, D. (1992). Pathways to play: Developing play skills in young children. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf
- Hussey-Gardner, B. (n.d.). Parenting to make a difference: Social skills. Retrieved from http://www.parentingme.com/htm
- Paley, V. (2004). A child’s work: The importance of fantasy play. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.