Play serves as important function in a child’s education and development. Play begins at birth and helps children learn about their world, express their feelings and ideas, and develop social relationships with the people they encounter throughout their life. There are two possibly three, says Helene Goldnadel, that children go through as they learn through play.
The first is the sensorimotor or exploratory stage of infancy and is usually the first two years of life. In this stage, infants learn by experimenting with the reactions of their actions. In the beginning of this stage the infant will use the same action for all objects and objectives. As infants explore, they discover that certain actions give them the results that they desire and others do not. This is sometimes referred to as “practice play”. In this stage there is no real difference between exploration and play because infants use exploration to acquire information and play to influence the environment, both of which are important learning factors.
The second stage is a level of symbolic play or the stage of dramatic or pretend play that is characteristic of preschoolers and kindergarteners. Play becomes more intellectual at this stage because children start to represent their world through pretend play or role playing. Preschool and kindergarten children spend less time exploring than infants and toddlers. Gradually practice play is replaced by constructive play, in which children engage in self-regulating creation or construction of a product or problem solution. This stage of play provides children with a unique way to problem solve and challenge themselves. This stage is the peak of pretend play. Children with replica objects (miniature dolls, action figures, cars, etc.), with realistic or non-realistic normal-sized objects or without objects. Children at this stage are better at using imaginary objects than they were int he previous stage. They can also use objects to represent other objects, for example, using a stick as a sword or a block as cookie. Children at this stage are also able to perform mature role-play, which requires the ability to set up the context for play. They use what they have experienced in their own life - how adults talk to babies, talk on the phone, etc. Other children are invited to play, roles are assigned, and context is established (but may change as play progresses). Verbal role taking is possible in two registers if dolls are involved- one for the mother and one for the baby. The most typical social interaction at preschool-age level is pretend play. Pretending seems to assist unfamiliar peers by providing a means by which children can find common ground for interaction.
Some say there is also a third stage in which playing involves games that have rules. Some may argue play and games are two different things- that play developmentally leads to games. Games have obstacles and rules imposed by the game itself, whereas play essentially has no rules or obstacles unless they are imposed by the child and hence changeable by the child also. However, for my purpose we will just say that the next stage of development is one that involves more set rules, but can have just as much learning possibilities. This provides a way for children to problem solve within a set of rules, which is a skill they will need later in life. Although, pretend play is less evident, this is not to say that it has completely disappeared from these older children’s play, but it is much more involved and complicated. There is almost always a specific goal and verbal communication is much more important.
This is just a guide to help you understand the stages and progression of a child’s learning through play. Every child is different. Whatever stage a child may be in, the important thing to know is that play is important in every child’s development and should be nourished and not dismissed as something children do in their free time. Play has the biggest influence on the development (physically, mentally, and emotionally) of children of all ages.