You may have heard someone say about an early childhood program, “All the children do is play.” At good early childhood programs there is a lot of play, and there should be!

Much research has been put into figuring out the best ways for young children to learn and develop, and the resounding answer is “through play.” Children at play are actively involved in generating ideas, exploring environments, establishing rules, solving problems and developing shared understandings. Through play children develop their intellectual, social, emotional, physical and language skills.

But, not all children play in the exact same way. In the same way that reading and writing progress through stages, play is much the same. Children at the beginning stages of play will often play by themselves. This is referred to as Independent or Solitary Play. As they develop, children will begin to play alongside other children. These individuals do not really play with others and may only talk briefly, they are simply in close proximity and utilizing the same materials. This type of play is referred to as Parallel Play. 

The next stage begins when children begin to organize their scenarios and rules with others. This type of play is called Cooperative Play. In Cooperative Play, students assign roles and participate in exchanges of dialogue. They must solve problems and disagreements as they arise in order to keep the play scenario in tact. These types of negotiations and compromise are important learning opportunities for students. A teacher’s role is to help negotiate these scenarios with children and scaffold their abilities.

As children progress through the stages of play, they learn to see other children’s points of view and develop empathy. They learn to use language in new ways to describe their play and to interact with others. And, in play, children also develop muscle strength and coordination.

As adults we can help support children’s play both at school and at home. We can do this by providing space, opportunity, and materials for use in play. We can set up areas where children can play without fear of damaging things or injuring themselves. We can ensure that they have time to choose and to become engaged in meaningful play and we can join their play and allow them to take the lead.

Play is fun, but it is also serious business in early childhood. By creating appropriate environments, allowing choice and independence, and engaging with our children, we increase the already abundant yield that play provides. So remember the next time your child asks you to play, you are serving to enhance many of the important attributes that your child will need throughout life.

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