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Infants » Learning Songs and Games

Child's Play: Birth to 3 Years

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By Linda M. Levine, M.Ed. - Communication Skill Builders

Babies play at every stage of development. Infants learn about how the world works by looking at their own hands, grabbing rattles, or hitting objects. Actions that are repeated many times, such as playing with toes, soon become more constructive as babies continue their physical development. Being able to sit up or move arond the room allows babies to explore different kinds of playthings.

Toddlers use toys more creatively. As they approach the second year of life, playing alone - solitary play - isn't as much fun as parallel play with other children.

You can help your child develop skills and progress to more advanced kinds of play - encouraging more complex play helps children with important thinking skills and with the social understanding of what they can do and how competent they are.

As soon as babies can grasp with their hands, they explore toys be putting them into their mouths. By 9 months, mouthing toys is not as important or as much fun as banging, shaking, and dumping things.

By age 1, babies are putting objects into containers, and they understand that pushing a button or pulling a string can make things happen. The toddler learns what to do with a spoon, a cup, and a telephone.

It's exciting to watch how an 18-month old child uses objects to act out familiar activities like eating, drinking, and telephoning.

By age 2, children are able to use pretend objects in place of real ones: A block becomes a piece of pie; some paper becomes a cookie. At this age, children pretend to be the adults they see in their lives - mommies, daddies, and even doctors! Learning how to pretend is the beginning of dramatic play and is an important first step in learning how to play pretend games with other children. In learning how to play make believe, the toddler is becoming a creative individual.

What's my role?

As a parent, you have an important job in the development of your young child's play skills.

Babies need you to talk and sing to them, and to provide many kinds of materials for them to explore. Most importantly, you must let he baby choose the toys and activities, but stop when the baby is tired and no longer wants to play.

Toddlers need you to play with the in games they choose themselves. You can help by giving suggestions and helping children play in more complex ways. Withdraw from the play when your child can handle he activities alone.

It's fun to "play house" with a 2-year-old when the toddler is able to eat the pretend food you offer and feed you in return. How you play helps your child learn about appropriate behavior.

Your child's special needs

Children with mild or severe disabilities may not develop play skills as quickly as other children. Their play develops in the same stages, but more slowly, and at later ages. If your child has a disability or developmental delay, you should provide lots of help and direction for play skills to move along from stage to stage.

If your child has severe physical or intellectual delays, you may need to help your child use feet, hands, eyes, and ears to explore objects. A child with disabilities - or any child at early stages of play - needs to experience how things feel (soft, rough, bumpy, smooth) and have the senses stimulated. You could stroke your child with feathers, or join in water play.

You may need to help your child focus attention in a mirror, or wiggle fingers and toes in the sand or water. Lots of smiles, hugs, and praise will encourage new play behaviors.

If your child has a milder developmental delay, you need to be aware of the next steps in play development and help your child reach those steps. A toddler playing alone needs encouragement to play near other children. The child needs help in learning how to play for longer periods of time with the same toy.

Your child may need help in learning to play appropriately with toys. Show how dolly can be fed and put to bed, or that mommy can be called by turning the dial on the telephone and talking into the receiver.

What toys and playthings are best? For babies, it's good to have toys that you and the baby can look at together. Talking about and playing with toes, fingers, and other body parts is just as wonderful as having rattles or soft animals to touch, chew on, or shake.

After the first few months of life, give toys which your child can use to make something happen rather than just watch or listen to. A toy that pops back up when it is pushed over is better than a wind-up toy.

For a toddler, rings to stack are better than a toy that talks when a string is pulled.

Children are playful by nature. They want to play every chance they get, and they learn each time they play. Take advantage of that! Encourage play at every level to help your child develop better physical, mental, language, and social skills.

What are the usual stages of children's play from birth to age 3? Solitary play. Children play alone with their own toys or activities and do not try to make contact with nearby children. This is the first kind of play; it continues with varying levels of sophistication as children develop.

Some play behaviors are:

  • filling-dumping
  • Simple means - and play, such as pushing a button to make something happen

Onlooker behavior. The child is interested in the play of other children but does not join in.

Some play behaviors are:

  • Functional use of common objects
  • Functional play. Acts out familiar activities, understands "pretend" (such as eating imaginary food)
  • Simple representational play. uses objects appropriately, such as feeding doll or putting it to bed.

Parellel play. Children play independently but near each other. There is close contact but little if any mutual play. The toys may be similar but one child doesn't try to influence the other's play.

Play behaviors:

  • Representational play with objects. Manipulates doll to do common things, such as look in mirror or kiss another doll.
  • Combined representational play. Child does series of pretend activities, such as pouring and drinking pretend milk.
  • Symbolic play. Pretend objects are used for real objects. Sand becomes a piece of cake, and a block can be a car.
  • Role play. Child takes on role of familiar people.

Associative play. Children share, borrow, and lend play materials among themselves. There is usually no common goal, even though the materials may be the same or similar. Play is sequential - they act out simple daily routines, such as undressing a doll, washing and diapering it, drying it, and putting clothes back on.

Ask Dr. Susan