Play is a very important aspect of a child’s life – their imagination grows, language develops, motor skills increase (both fine and gross), and play creates an atmosphere to practice character and real life skills.
But there is also an age appropriate play – and play grows up. It changes as our kids develop in their thinking, and ability to do things (fine and gross motor skills).
Initially toys and play time is about developing fine and gross motor skills and about becoming aware of the world around them. Babies play with sound and colour , toddlers play with building, sorting , matching. They learn to walk, climb, run and jump. They learn to figure out jigsaw puzzles and colour in. They start to appreciate stories and learn to sit still to listen. These are gradual skills that fill our little kids play time.
Preschoolers play time is filled with much the same activities but their skills are fine tuned. They are big on imaginations and role play, they love mimicking real life: telephones, kitchen sets, medical kits, towns with roads, houses, and cars, they play shop, they play families, school and church. They love making mess (technically called ‘art’) with paint, playdough, boxes and glue. They learn to ride a bike, throw and catch balls, and make music by banging things. Puzzles and board games get trickier, they can sit and enjoy books on their own as well as enjoy a story being read to them.
School age children by now have the ability to do things – and their play begins to look a little different. They still enjoy imagination games, but this is being weaned out because of other interests. At this age we start to see personal interests begin to develop: sport, art/craft, music, books, love of nature or mechanics (this is only a beginning list, and fairly broad at that!) Gradually their play time is about doing the things they love – and not so much about imagination games. But it is still play – they are still exploring and developing new skills, just from a different angle. And just as we provided developmental toys for our toddler/pre-schooler we need to provide instructions and materials to their new interests.
This pursuit of individual interests increases through the preteen to teen years it is important to continue to provide our kids with real tools and materials, real competition (if they excel at sports), and plenty of opportunity to practice what they love. It is easy to dismiss play-time at this age and just focus on studies but these things that fill their imaginations and their ‘free’ time are as beneficial to their development as a whole person at this age, as imagination play is to a toddler. (But just a side note – they won’t want you to call it ‘play time’ LOL)
How children interact with siblings and friends during their play time changes as they grow as well. Initially toddlers like playing by themselves, and if they have a friend or sibling, they play along side of each other, not necessarily interacting. As they grow older they start to play with their playmates building on each other’s game. This playing with people increases as they grow older, with the peer friends (or friends with the same interests regardless of specific age) becomes more important to them as they get closer to the teen years.
One of the things that we have worked on when our kids were preteens/teens is that they were to do stuff with their friends – they didn’t just hang. I found when they planned an activity to do while they visited – for the girls it was often craft or board games, for the boys it tended to be lego or outside activities, they had a much happier play-date. They didn’t get bored and mope, and they left each other with a desire to see each other again. Now with older teens they do just hang, they talk with their friends and this is really what I do with my friends, but they also know if the conversation is slipping to places they don’t want to go, they know how to pull it out – they get a board game or go for a walk!
Play time is an important part of our children’s development and learning. And just like we don’t keep our kids on counting in math, or riding a bike with trainers, we need to help our children grow in their play so they are learning to spend their free time well.