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Children’s play: It's more serious than you think

Play is a very serious activity for children, and is, as the Italian physician and educator, Maria Montessori, said, the work of the child. 

The role of play in infant development


Play is indeed learning, as it’s how children experience, discover and get to know the environment. Play helps promote healthy cognitive, physical and social-emotional development and wellbeing.


Through play, children learn many abilities, including motor skills, cognitive abilities, language and socialization skills, self-confidence and abilities to successfully manage stress. They also learn to use their creativity and imagination, to care for others and the environment, to communicate, and to solve problems.


During play, children are also able to experience emotions, frustrations and conflicts in a “protected context”. This means that intense emotions become more manageable, as they are put outside and are recreated through playing life scenarios appropriate for the child’s age. In this way, children learn about their own, and others’ emotions and how to regulate them.

As previously mentioned, when a baby is born their brain is very immature and the first experiences are critical for their development. In the first years, experiences are taken in and guide the development of specific connections between neurons in the brain. Therefore, the brain creates individual pathways of connections based on experiences. For example, a parental caring response to the baby helps build emotional connections which create the basis for future healthy relationships. Similarly, talking, reading and playing with caregivers help children strengthen language and cognitive connections. Although every baby is born with a genetic makeup, lots of their development is determined by the specific environmental experiences that infants have, particularly during the first years of life.


Nowadays, for parents who are constantly trying to balance work and home life, with limited support available and constant time pressure, it’s often hard to find time to play with their children. However, this is very important, not only because it helps master infants’ fundamental skills but also because it promotes the parent-infant relationship.

The different developmental stages of play

Infants play from birth and play evolves with their development. As we discussed in a previous article, new-borns already have many competencies for interaction. In the first 6 months of life, play is mainly represented by the face-to-face interaction with the caregiver in a dance of movements, touch, sights, sounds and words. Often, from the very beginning, there is a general impatience in wanting to give toys to babies, but these are not necessary at this initial stage. At 3-4 months there is an emerging interest in objects, which gradually babies will be able to touch, grasp and then put in their mouth. Babies also start playing with their bodies and those of others (e.g., touching, pulling hair, putting hands and feet to mouth) as this is their first channel to get to know the world around them.

After 6 months, there is further opening to the environment, with a greater interest in the exploration of objects. Interactions with the caregivers also become more complex conversations with alternations of turns and, with time, objects also incorporated in the interaction, so that the interest in the world becomes shared. The first real games also emerge, such as peek-a-boo, which also help to start processing and tolerating the separation from the mother who sometimes goes away but then comes back. This stage of play in the first 12 months is often called exploratory or sensorimotor play.

 Between 12 and 18 months, functional or relational play emerges. At this stage, toddlers are starting to learn concepts such as cause-effect, and can use objects according to their function. Therefore, play involves filling, turning and manipulating objects to understand for example how they can twist or make noise.


Then, gradually functional play becomes more complex and becomes proto-symbolic play. Infants receive care from their caregivers and reproduce these actions first with themselves (at around 15 months) and then with objects, such as dolls and animals (at around 18 months). Examples include caring for a bear or dressing up a doll.


At around 24 months toddlers start to engage in pretend or symbolic play, which means play becomes more abstract and an object can now be used not only with its real function and characteristics, but also to represent something else: a block can become a phone, a stick a hair comb, a piece of wood an aeroplane. This play will gradually become more complex and articulated over the years.


Between 2 and 3 years, play becomes more imaginative and children start combining different actions to perform new and original play scenarios, which gradually become more complex. At the beginning, children start acting everyday life scenarios (feed a doll, then change her nappy and clothes and then put her to bed); later on, scenarios become more abstract and imaginative. Furthermore, at this stage, play starts becoming less solitary and children start the first play interactions. From 3/4 years, there is the emergence of group play and group games with rules.

Play: Which and how many toys


Children need to get in touch with objects; however, these don’t have to be expensive toys. Indeed, particularly in the first stages, anything that can be found at home, as long as it’s safe, can be something unique to explore and play with. With time, when different toys and materials appear in the house, it’s important that the space is organized in a way that these are all easily seen and reachable by the child. In this way children can freely choose what to take and do, without having to always compel to a choice made by someone else. This helps them master their abilities and build confidence in themselves.


However, as a rule, it’s always best to give only a few toys to not overstimulate children. With fewer toys available children play for longer and in more various and creative ways. In short, fewer toys promote sustained play, concentration and creativity. On the contrary, too many toys make it hard to concentrate, facilitate distraction, and inhibit the development of creativity and of cognitive abilities. To this end, a useful piece of advice is to do cyclic rotations of toys. This means that different toys are left around while others are temporarily hidden.


Connected to this, is the fundamental importance of not filling every single minute of children’s lives. Unfortunately, recently there has been a marked reduction of free exploratory playtime for children, as a consequence of a generally hurried lifestyle, changes in family structure and increased focus on school performance and enrichment activities. We should not fill every single minute of children’s lives. Children don’t need to have a busy agenda of activities and events; they need space to play freely, experience and get to know the environment. So, we shouldn’t worry about the fact that children may get bored, because it’s, indeed, in this empty space that creativity and cognitive processes are promoted. Furthermore, we need to be careful as this busy lifestyle can be a source of stress for children, which can also contribute to anxiety and depression.


Furthermore, screen time should be limited. In particular, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends no screen time for children under 2 and no more than one hour a day for children aged 2 to 4. This is because, it’s fundamental for little children to get in direct contact with reality with all different senses to get to know the world and themselves.


Some useful advice

Here are some advice on how you can support play and your child through development:

  • Talk and read to your baby from birth, and even during pregnancy. This will support your baby’s cognitive and language development as well as your relationship with them. Remember to respect turns and pauses to give the baby a chance to respond.

  • Involve the baby in day-to-day activities: describe what you are doing, nominate objects, talk to your baby!

  • Provide new materials and experiences that are suitable for the child’s age and can master new and different skills. These don’t need to be expensive.

  • Allow time for free-play to learn and develop creativity. Children who are hurried from one activity to another don’t have time to focus, find new solutions and be creative.

  • Don’t overwhelm the child with toys: less is best at each developmental stage. With fewer toys, children are more able to concentrate and are prompted to develop new skills and their imagination.

  • Support play but give the child time to explore independently: you can encourage play, make suggestions of what can be done and participate, but it is also important for the child to explore independently.


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