Play is crucial for a child’s social, emotional and cognitive growth. As a child’s skills develop the complexities of their play develop – from building a tower with blocks and knocking it down to building a tower with blocks that has a garage for the toy car to drive into and the toy person to stand on top of.
When children play they are developing their problem solving, motor planning and ideation skills as well as role playing and re-enacting familiar events within their own life.
Play is a safe space where children can explore emotions such as anger or being scared and with the support of an interactive play partner (mum, dad, older brother or sister, grandparent or caregiver) they can explore these emotions through role play.
With a responsive, interactive play partner a child’s play can be extended from being one idea of repetitive play e.g: building tower with blocks and knocking it down over and over to more complex ideas of extended play e.g: building a house with 2 rooms, one is the bedroom for the doll and the other room is the kitchen.
An interactive play partner can explore emotions and feelings in play, for example during doll play- the baby doll is crying and mum can ask the child… “why is baby crying?”, extending the play into a discussion about maybe the baby doll is hungry or tired and then problem solving- what can we do to make the baby doll better – give her a bottle, wrap her and put her to bed.
Watching HOW your child plays can tell you a lot about their play skills and any possible challenges that may be impacting their ability to play.
Take notice of WHAT and HOW they are playing.
Do they enjoy a variety of activities and toys such as blocks, cars, books, musical instruments and will they play at these activities for up to 10 minutes at each activity before moving off to another activity?
When they play do they get “stuck” in one play idea e.g: connecting duplo together to make a tall tower and then knock it down, doing this over and over again and when you try to change the play or build something else they get upset and frustrated?
Do they move around their room or play room without getting toys out to play with, even though they have plenty of toys?
Do they play with the same toy/activity continuously even though they have a variety of toys available to them?
Do they prefer cause and effect toys that only have one purpose (posting ball toys, press button light and sound toys)?
Do they engage in repetitive behaviours when they play with certain toys e.g: Laying on the floor as they push the toy train back and forth along the floor?
Possible challenges that impact play skills
When we see our children engaging in repetitive play or unable to engage in play by themselves it may be an indication that they require support with their praxis.
Praxis is the neurological process by which cognition directs motor action (Ayres, 1985). Put simply, it involves planning what to do and how to do it. In order to know what to do, we must first conceive the idea of what to do (ideation), then plan how we are going to do it (motor organisation, or motor planning), perform the movement correctly (execution) and then be able to reflect on feedback so we can adapt our movements in the future (feedback and adaptation).
So, when children play it requires them to first have an idea (build a house with the blocks), then plan how they are going to build the house (find the blocks in the playroom, get the blocks out of the box and tip the blocks out to start building). They then need to perform the movement of building a house with the blocks and that requires fine motor skills to stack the blocks and move the blocks around to construct the house and then problem solve what to do when a block falls and reflect on how to fix the problem.
What seems like a simple play idea of building a house is in actual fact a very complex process for the child to engage in. So, if a child has some challenges in this area it is easy to see why engaging in play themes or even starting play with blocks, train tracks, dolls, or any play that is open ended can seem very overwhelming for them.
This may also be the reason why the child has difficulty starting play on their own because they are unable to first have the idea (ideation) of what they want to do. This may be seen as the child moving around the room, briefly touching or picking up a toy then putting it back down or pushing toys off a table and not really playing even though they have a room full of toys.
How to support your child in play
First and foremost, follow your child’s lead – this means follow what your child is doing at that time and try to find a way to join them in what they are doing. For example, if they are stacking blocks, join them and start putting blocks on top of what they are building. Resist the temptation to start talking about what they should be building or taking over their play – the aim is to develop the relationship between yourself and your child and to let them know that you are interested in what they are doing and how they are playing.
Set time aside when you can have deliberate play time without any distractions- Aim for about 20 minutes of play time a few times a day if possible. This will vary each day depending what you have on but setting time aside to really play can support your child in developing these important skills, not to mention strengthen the relationship and engagement between parent/caregiver and child.
Draw on your child’s interests – do they love Paw Patrol or Thomas the Tank Engine? Maybe it is insects or cars? Incorporate this into their play. Set up 2-3 areas of toys including their favourite characters or interest to entice your child to play. Let them move to what interests them first then you can follow their lead.
Support them in their ideation and motor planning – Join your child where they are in their play first, then gradually extend on this play. Try strategies such as:
– Offering choices. For example: child is pushing the car back and forth on the floor, join them in this play for a while then try offering a suggestion or idea “are our cars going to the shops or the beach?” “is your car driving fast or slow?”
– Be playful: give dolls, animals, figurines a voice and pretend they are talking to the child
– Be silly and use lots of facial expressions to make the play exciting and to keep the play interaction going
– If your child can ask and respond to questions confidently then ask lots of WH questions within play – “why is your car driving to the house?” follow your child’s lead and their ideas. “Why is the baby doll crying?” “are they hungry/ tired?” Pause and give your child time to respond
Support your child in planning and sequencing in their play:
– Construction toys and activities are a great way to do this. Use blocks, train track, duplo, lego etc
– Avoid tipping all the pieces out all at once so as not to visually overwhelm them. Have a few pieces of train track on the floor and support your child as they build the track.
– Avoid telling them where the pieces should go – try showing them 2 pieces and asking “which one do you want next?”
– Remember that it is the process and not the end product that is the key! If you can see that the track is not going to meet up, that is ok! Use this as a learning opportunity and say “oh no, what happened? The track doesn’t connect”. If the child is not concerned about that then move forward in the play. REMEMBER: process NOT perfection!
– Avoid building it for them – assume your child’s competence! It is OK if they get frustrated or angry that the train track does not go together easily. Comfort them through these difficult emotions and feelings and offer support. Use words like “I can see you are getting frustrated/angry because it is not going together – can I help?” You know your child best and will know whether you use less or more language based on their communication abilities.
Play is really about connecting with your child and even though we want them to develop their skills through play this will happen naturally when you are an interactive, fun, exciting play partner who supports their play rather than controls it.
Most of all……HAVE FUN and always remember PROCESS NOT PERFECTION!