Play is the Key to School Readiness
“Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play, children learn how to learn.” O Fred Donaldson
Play is critical for all children, particularly children preparing to go into preschool or kindergarten in September. While children play, they develop a variety of skills that will help them become academically and socially “school-ready.” However, more and more, parents and educators are focusing on teaching the alphabet, colors, and numbers to children before they enroll in school, and forgetting about the importance of play. But did you know the children who are the most successful in school are also the children who play the most? When children play, they learn how to learn!
Skills that children learn through play include:
Language: Through play, children learn to use their words to request, describe, joke, question, and much more while playing with parents and peers. They learn a variety of vocabulary words. Most importantly, they practice using language in a highly motivating, low-pressure environment.
Social Emotional: Play allows children to not only use their imaginations, but to practice sharing an imagination with others. Children with strong pretend play skills create a scenario with their peers and imagine actions, materials, and roles as a group. This requires flexibility, perspective taking, negotiation, problem solving and much more.
Cognitive: Cognitive skills learned through play include attention, problem solving, multi-step directions, memory, predictions/inferences, experimentation, and more!
Stages of play development
Stage 1: Unoccupied Play (birth-3 months) - Your child plays lay through simple movements of their hands/feet.
Stage 2: Solitary Play (3 months-2 years) - Your child will play alone and not seek others to play with.
Stage 3: Spectator/Onlooker Play (2 years) - Your child may watch others play, but still prefers to play alone. At this point they may be too shy or hesitant to join in the play.
Stage 4: Parallel Play (2+ years) - Your child begins to play alongside others, and although they are not fully playing with each other, they are paying attention to each other and developing interest in playing with other kids.
Stage 5: Associate Play (3-4 years) - Your child begins to interact more with others during play, and is generally more interested in other kids than toys. They may play with the same blocks or go down the same slide with other children; they may ask questions and talk to each other during play. However, they do not yet set rules or create a shared play theme with each other.
Stage 6: Cooperative Play (3-4 years) - Your child begins to truly socialize with others through play. They establish roles, rules, and themes. They pretend an object is something else to aid in their play. They learn to negotiate and problem solve through play.
You can read more about the stages of play here
Signs that your child may not be playing in an age-appropriate way:
Most children develop play skills in a sequential, hierarchical way (described above). Play begins with simple actions such as taking apart an object and putting it back together and progresses to very abstract, symbolic, and imaginative actions (e.g., assigning roles in a superhero play theme).
However, children with autism spectrum disorders, language delays, and other developmental disorders may not develop play skills in this sequential way without intervention. Children with autism have significant difficulty engaging in imaginative or pretend play, and typically prefer rote and rigid behaviors instead of imaginative play. They tend to prefer to play alone instead of engaging with others. Children with language disorders or other developmental delays may not have the language skills to engage in pretend play.
The behaviors listed below are NOT typical forms of play, and may be indications that your child is not be developing play in the expected way:
Self-stimulating behaviors, such as waving an object closely in his/her own face or intently watching a light-up object.
Lining up toys in rows in an overly-rigid way (i.e., becoming upset if an object is moved out of line).
Fixating on letters, numbers, or facts about 1 given subject (e.g., reciting facts about dinosaurs in a rote way).
Repeated and solitary play with 1 object, difficulty allowing others to play with this object.
Scripting or repeating phrases heard on TV or in movies in a self-directed way.
Lack of attention to peers who are engaging in pretend play around him/her.
How can speech-language therapy help a child who has difficulty playing?
If you are concerned about your child’s play skills, or if they are playing in a self-directed way (described above), a pediatrician or a speech-language pathologist can help you to determine if an evaluation is necessary.
Speech-language therapy is an excellent way to support your child’s play skills and help them learn the language, cognitive, and social-emotional skills that are necessary for school. Through speech-therapy, children can learn the language they need to play in an age-appropriate way, and parents can how to play in a way that elicits language. They may teach parents how to follow their child’s lead, expand on the language the child uses, comment in a meaningful way, and what type of questions to ask during play.
5 Ways to Support Language Through Play
1. Follow your child's lead. Don't try to direct your child during play. If your child wants to bang on a pan with his spoon, pan-banging is what you should do. Play should always be motivating and should never be stressful for the child, so observe your child as he begins to play and then follow his lead.
2. Expand on what he says. Make a short comment about what your child says or does. If your child says "go," as he's playing with a truck, expand on his utterance by saying "go, truck go! Go down the ramp." Pair this comment with an action to support your child's comprehension.
3. Monitor the amount and type of questions you ask. While questions can be a great way to keep your child engaged, try not to overload her with questions. Asking too many questions may actually stop the conversation, and will often overwhelm your child. Instead, only ask questions at a natural time in the conversation that will keep the interaction going, and ask questions that show your child you are interested in what she is doing. If you feel that you are asking too many questions, try turning your question into a comment. For example: instead of saying "is this a car?" try saying, "Wow! Look at the big red car!"
4. Create opportunities for your child to use language and take turns. If your child doesn't use language or doesn't automatically include others in play, create moments in which your child needs to communicate. For example, play hide and seek with their favorite toy. Start by making the game silly - dramatically hide the toy behind your back, model a phrase (e.g., where's the truck?), and then playfully show them the toy. Slowly start to prompt them to use their words to request the toy.
5. Set communication goals for play. Do you want your child to start using certain words (e.g., go, stop, my turn, etc.)? Do you want your child to start following routines? Do you want him to start interacting more with others? There are many goals that can be targeted through play in a way that is fun and engaging for your child. If you're unsure about what goal is most important for your child, or how to target goals through play, a speech-language therapist is a great resource for you!
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Halloran, J. and Halloran, J. (2015). Social Stages of Play. [online] Encourage Play. Available at: https://www.encourageplay.com/blog/social-stages-of-play [Accessed 24 Jul. 2018].
Pepper, J., Weitzman, E. and Manolson, H. (2004). It takes two to talk. Toronto, Ont.: Hanen Program, pp.107-130.