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Learning through Play
A Toddler’s Journey
By Laura Hardy
Play assists learning just as a child learns to play. Children learn about various different areas of ability through play, for example learning new words (language) about the world they live in (cognitive) how to behave in an acceptable way (social) how to recognise and control emotions and feelings (emotional) and also co-ordination and balance (physical.)
There are four main types of play for children: solitary play, parallel play, associative play and co-operative play. As the child grows and learns more about how to play they will work their way through these types of play until they are capable of all four of them.
Solitary play is the names given to the type of play that a child does between birth and two years of age (all ages given are typical ages) where for the most part a child will play alone. They require guidance and encouragement from other people, for example to know that they have to shake a rattle or squeeze a squeaky toy, but at this age their energies are concentrated on learning as much as they can from the world so will be happy in their own company experimenting with toys and household items as well as watching how other people play and copying to the best of their ability. They will however be able to play simple games such as peekaboo and clapping games (patti-cake) and “action rhymes” such as “row row row your boat” with adults and other children once they have developed their co-ordination. Acting out these rhymes and demonstrating what rattles, how mirrors work and blocks encourages the development of hand eye co-ordination and also motor skills to pick up blocks and shake rattles. Whilst they sit and observe how other people play they also learn about the world by identifying people’s roles in the world and also how people play and act around other people.
Parallel play is usually developed by two to three years where children become more aware of other children around them. At this stage they will happily play “alongside” or near to other children, however it is very typical for them to be reluctant to share or play a game with another child, such as racing cars which requires the children to engage with each other and be capable of understanding the complexities of a two plus player game. It teaches a child to behave in a socially acceptable way with other children and about sharing whilst learning about the world around them by playing with cars on a mat where the road is printed on and feeding dolls or soft toys. By watching how other people act around them they are identifying what is appropriate and what isn’t so it is paramount at this age that children still receive guidance from people around them, such as carers, parents, friends and older siblings and that rules and guidelines and enforced so the children aren’t getting mixed messages about what is play and what is “naughty behaviour.”
Here at this development stage it is good to encourage children to share and play alongside each other without conflict however, children not sharing and protesting to other children playing near them is very likely to happen. When this happens it is important that it is explained to the child that sharing is “nice” (“sharing is caring”) and that it is ok for another child to play near them and this is consistent then there is no reason that the child won’t develop to the right “timescales”.
Associative play requires skills associated with three to four year old’s and again at this stage they are still learning to play co-operatively with each other. They will by now have moved on from just observing how their peers play and begin to copy and replicate how and what they do. It could appear that the children are playing together fi there is some sort of interaction between the toys and characters however this would be very advanced. Here they will learn what is acceptable of them and about sharing and respecting other children’s play space and also how to act if the child they are playing near gets upset if they perceive their game to have been interfered in.
Co-operative play is the final stage of play development when a child can now play with other children in the same games. This is when games such as car races and playing families for example start to appear during play time. By now a child has the social skills to “read” a situation and join in appropriately to the game and the emotional skills to play with another child whilst demonstrating a high level of physical co-ordination to join in appropriately.
To summarise, as children grow, they evolve from watching people play and how they act in certain situations, to start to mimic what they do in play, eventually reaching a stage where they are putting the events into their own perspective and by mixing that with their own interpretation they learn how to play both alone and with others and with children and adults alike.