What is play?
When I used to think about children playing, I would imagine a group of children surrounding a pretend kitchen set working together to make a meal pretending that they are a family. The reality is that this is such a late stage of play! Once I began teaching and learning more about the stages of play, I became more and more interested in learning through observation and studying what play really is and how children learn from play. Many learners don’t start school or have their first interactions with other children with inherent skills to play with any and all toys. Some learners my need to be taught each stage of play in small direct teaching steps.
Why is play important?
Play is an important piece to a healthy brain. Just like children need to learn letter sounds, how to say hello, or what their name is, they need to learn how to play. Play allows children to use their creativity and show their personalities while also expanding on their imagination and other domains. Children learn a lot about the world around them through play. It helps them make sense of their environment. Keeping play in all classrooms is important. Talk with the team, be a leader, and train staff on how you want it to look in the classroom with each student. No matter what age, play and appropriate leisure skills should be individualized and based on the development of each learner.
What are the stages of play?
Unoccupied Play: At this stage, children are learning about the way that their body moves and how it makes an impact on their environment.
Solitary Play: In this stage you will see children playing alone with any type of toy and usually away from others.
Spectator: During this stage, children begin to watch other children playing. This could be from a distance as they are gaining skills in joint attention and an interest in what other are doing.
Parallel play: This is when a child plays next to or near other. They may start to play with similar materials, but does not happen always.
Associative Play: This stage is when a child starts to interact with others during play. The interactions may be for a quick moment such as imitating, asking for a turn, or even making eye contact.
Cooperative Play: This is when children play together. During this stage is when you see cooperation on the same activity. I like acting out and introducing play schemes and acting out life skills and pairing it with the unit activities!
How to teach play
Observations and play based assessments are a great way to see where your learners are functioning and what skills they may be missing. In order to fill in those holes, we use many strategies to expand and teach new play skills! Below are just a few:
- Use visual play schemes
- Video modeling
- Teacher modeling to encourage imitated actions during play
- Discrete trial
- Task analysis for play schemes
- Follow the child’s lead and expand
- Pivotal response training
- Narrate the child’s play for them
- Include peers when working through the stages
- Always use communiation methods (Device, PECS, Core boards, etc)
- Post a whiteboard with skills you are working on for each learner so everyone in the classroom is consistent.
Including play time in all grades
This is a hot topic around school lately. My belief is that all grades deserve play time. Children of all ages use toys and play to explore. Children and adolescents of all ages need a time for their brain to take a break without their bodies being physically exhausted. I believe that there should be time within the school day for all students to engage in play skills and appropriate leisure activities. This will help with independence and expand on the skills and activities they are able to carry out when there is down time. Students in all grades need time to get creative, work together, and to give their brains and bodies a break from sitting doing pencil and paper activities. When appropriate toys and play times are taken out of classrooms, children begin to show behaviors that they are not ready to learn and may withdraw, especially when tests and worksheets are hard for them if they do not learn that way.
There is research that shows that play leads to longer life expectancies, better ability to handle stress, increased ability to handle emotions, and more overall better health. Play allows children to form relationships. Although there has been an increase in play-based assessments in the earlier grades, I believe this can happen throughout all grades for students who need it. many children learn best through hands on experiences. Including play in the classroom and the school day helps motivate students to participate throughout the day. Whether early learners are playing dress-up or higher grades are playing Uno and other card games, it can be done. Teachers, clinicians, parents, and everyone involved in a child’s learning can help enhance play, expose them to next steps, and form a strong advocacy for all grade levels.