Observe 6 Play Skills Based on Your Child’s Age

play skills

As an expert in child development, in the assessment process, a question I often ask parents and often misunderstood is: “Does your child play with their toys?” More often than not, the answer is “Yes,” but when observing the child’s play skills in their natural environment, during a virtual assessment, there are generally a wealth of toys nearby, yet he or she is not interested in any of the items. This also looks like an adult introducing the child to an unfamiliar toy by demonstrating its function, then handing the toy to the child; the child may (1) hold on to it and do nothing else, (2) throw it, or (3) drop it. After a certain age, these behaviors and interactions are not considered developmentally appropriate.  A child’s play skills are the window to their development. Play reveals your child’s ability to participate in turn-taking, problem solving, development of fine and gross motor skills, social-emotional regulation, sequencing and many other areas.

What do appropriate play skills look like?

Play is defined as engaging in an activity for recreation and enjoyment. The reason many parents incorrectly answer, “Does your child play with their toys?” is because they are not aware of the interactions children should demonstrate on the basis of age. The following describes each type of play and behaviors you may observe during a specific period of development.

    • Unoccupied Play (birth – 3 months) Babies engage in random movements of their arms and legs with no clear purpose.
    • Solitary Play (birth to 2 years old) Children interact with toys appropriately on their own, in addition to exploring the environment.  Appropriate interaction will look like driving a car across the floor (possibly paired with a sound), rolling a ball in a direction and running after it, or hugging a teddy bear and seating the bear next to themselves. Examples of appropriate toys for this stage: Doddle Board | Dump Truck | Mega Blocks | Stickers
    • Spectator/Onlooker Play (2 to 2.5 years old) Children will watch others play from a distance or even ask questions, but they usually do not engage in the activity they are observing another do
    • Parallel Play (2.5 to 3 years old) Children begin to play side-by-side with other children with no purposeful exchange or interaction, but will attend to what each is doing.
    • Associative Play (3 – 4 years old) Children begin to verbally engage with each other and may share some toys, though the focus is not specifically toy-oriented; there are no set rules or goals during these interactions. Examples of appropriate toys for this stage: Lincoln Logs | Doctor Kit for KidsKids Cleaning Set | Dress-up Clothes for Kids
    • Cooperative Play (4 – 6 years old) Children share toys and ideas, and follow established rules. Examples of appropriate toys: Pretend Kitchen Set | Cash RegisterFold n’ Go BarnTea Set

An important consideration, in all stages after the age of 24 months, is your child using toys in the manner it was designed. Inappropriate interaction with toys and the environment can signify developmental concerns. The exception to this rule is symbolic play, which resembles the child using an object not as intended (i.e. a block used as a phone) but still demonstrating functional use and appropriate interaction.



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