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What is Play?

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" my first grade teacher asked me, her silver white hair brushed neatly into an upswept twist. I could never tell if her hair was long or short, it was just always neat; a rare feat for most adults working with children (myself included). It was a testament to her kind discipline and firm structure.

"I'm not too sure," I replied, "but I know I don't want to put my toys away."

She raised a curious dark eyebrow and inquired, "What do you mean, Susan?"

As assuredly as a 6 year old can be, I explained, "Grown up always have to put their toys away and stop playing. I don't know when I'm supposed to do it, but I don't want to. I want to keep playing."

My teacher chuckled, "Oh, Susan, I know you'll find a way to grow up and never put your toys away."


Research shows our children learn best through play-based activities centered around their interests and motivations (Greenspan; Robertson, Morrissey, Rouse, 2018) . School systems that are changing their approach from Common Core to play-based learning are the noticing positive impacts (Read about one district's experience here). However, we shouldn't wait until school years to discover how crucial engaged and co-regulated play is.

The keys are being engaged and co-regulated. You are in this world together with your child; you are her first teacher, her guide to how this new place works. Eventually, we want our children to develop independent play skills, but first we need to show them the ropes. Remember how your tiny baby used to smile seemingly randomly? Then as he noticed the reaction you gave, most likely a big smile and cooing, he smiled more! This is engagement. You are capturing your child's attention with your actions and he's learning how to get more attention from you. The next steps are to use this engagement to teach your baby how to regulate, or achieve a happy balanced state. Neither of these foundational skills can be achieved independently, this is where you are guiding your child into our world.

Play can be considered in 3 different types: Sensory Play, Object-Based Play or Symbolic Play (credit: Greenspan Floortime). Sensory Play serves the purpose of learning how to use our body and navigating it through space. Swings, trampolines, scooter board and tunnels are great ways to activate the big muscle groups in sensory play. Finger paints, whipped cream play, playdough and slime are excellent ways to target smaller muscle groups. Through these activities, we learn about our body, how to move it and what it likes.

Second, Object-Based Play gets into the cause and effect of our world. Toys with buttons, lights and sounds help peak our interest in cause/effect. Don't forget blocks, puzzles, shape sorters and stacking gears are also great ways to teach what works together and how to change things around us. By working with objects, we learn how to manipulate the world and lay the foundation for symbolic play through basic problem solving.

Third, Symbolic (or Pretend) Play is how we start to generate novel ideas, collaborate and use higher levels of problem solving. This is when we're creating stories about the car, not just watching the wheels turn or how fast we can push it. Why and how questions really get the ball rolling here!

Check out my Intro to Play Types video where I will introduce you to the types of play and why each one is important.

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