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The Many Ways Toddlers Play

The stages of play and how they help children develop


Children learn through play, but how they play changes and evolves as they grow. As they move out of early infancy when play centers around interacting with you, they progress through different types of toddler play and early preschool activities. In each of these specific phases your child will learn about the world and strengthen physical as well as cognitive skills.

How your child moves from one stage or way of playing is not necessarily linear. He may straddle two different categories at once or begin to play in one way today and go back to an old way of doing things tomorrow. Eventually, though, children who are developmentally on target will move beyond each of these early stages and into more sophisticated ways of interacting with others and their environment.

1. Parallel Play

Around your child's third birthday she'll begin sharing toys and playing with other children. Before that, children usually just enjoy playing near -- or parallel to -- each other. Don't worry, it doesn't mean that she doesn't like her companion or that she isn't social. It's just the way toddlers do things.

2. Collaborative Play

By the late toddler and early preschool years, your child will probably begin to be more and more interested in playing with siblings or friends and not just near them. This transition can be a bit bumpy as he starts to learn what it means to share, take turns, play by specific rules, and negotiate with others. Like most life lessons, your child will need your help to master these skills.

3. Functional Play

Sometimes referred to as first play, this stage of playing begins in infancy. It's marked by your child deliberately trying to entertain himself with a plaything (versus just looking at it or chewing on it because his teeth hurt). Of course, that plaything may not be the expensive toy you bought for his birthday. It's very possibly a sock or, very often, it's the bag that the expensive gift came in. At this point, what delights your child is anything that engages his senses -- sight, smell, taste, hearing, or touch. Just be sure that the items he chooses to explore are safe for young children since he'll be reaching for anything that catches his attention.

4. Constructive Play

At around 2 years of age your child will have a longer attention span and can begin to appreciate toys for more than their sensory value. These traits usher in the next phase of play when she'll go from simply exploring an object to finding a purpose for the object. Watch your child start constructing towers with blocks not just to make them higher, but to give her dolls a place to stand. See as she goes beyond just feeling the playdough to trying to shape a ball or create something with a mold. In general, watch her stretch her imagination and creative thinking skills.

5. Dramatic Play

Toddlers and drama go hand-in-hand, but the term dramatic play doesn't have anything to do with those sudden tantrums on the floor or tears when your little one doesn't get another cookie. What it does refer to is the phenomenon of make-believe games your child begins to enjoy around age 2. It includes dress-up, playing with dolls, pretending to be a superhero, and acting out or "telling" stories in any way that's appropriate for his stage of development. It's important for verbal and intellectual development -- and is also adorable and fascinating to behold.
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  6. Toddler Play - the Different Ways Little Kids Play and Learn

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