It is a child’s way of exploring, of expressing and learning.  For some children, its very natural seamless.  They progress from rattles to musical toys to wooden blocks to elaborate dramatic play as easily as they increase their shoe size.

For other children, though, play is not a vehicle of growth.  Play is overstimulating, confusing, frustrating.  Play means other kids and that means loud noises and sharing personal space.  Toys are lots of pieces that don’t make sense.

Examples of atypical play

Disorganized Play.  A child with disorganized play doesn’t attend to a single toy.   A toddler may dump multiple containers and plow through the piles.  A preschooler stacks a few blocks then grabs a car and flings it across the room then grabs a teddy bear and shakes it.  The pieces to his Little People castle are long lost and he doesn’t have the skills to use his animals in the castle, so it sits in the corner gathering dust.

Immature Play.  Once children are mobile, they tend to move away from playing with musical, cause-effect toys.  Toddlers should move on to playing with one and two step toys such as ball trackers and shape sorters.  They should develop and interest in functional play with cars, dolls, kitchen sets and building.  As they grow, they play with the same toys, but the play becomes more sophisticated.  I have a box of random toys…cars, animals, doll furniture…What a child does with the items in the box tells me about their level of play.  Do they ignore it?  (lowest level).  Do they take the items out one by one, simply emptying the container?  Do they line them up?  These are all signs of immature play for any child under 2 1/2.  Do they put the baby in the toy crib?  Do they push the car across the floor?  Do they pretend to eat the plastic popsicle? These are things I’m looking for in the 3 year old.

Hyperfocused Play.  It is maladaptive play to repetitively press a button, spin a moving part or flick a tab.  Children who use toys in these ways need to be shown more functional ways to interact with toys.

What to do?

Children who struggle with play skills can improve when structure and adult guidance is given to their play opportunities.

  • model   They need to be shown how to use the toys.  That means that the adult sits along side them and does the play and gently, over time, draws in the child to join.  The play actions are simple, basic and repetitive.  Eventually, the adult fades out and the child plays independently.
  • simplify     Clear out the play space.  Leave one bin of toys in each of the following categories:
    • construction (Duplos, Legos, blocks, Tinker toys, Lincoln logs, Zoobs, etc.)
    • fine motor toys (1-2 puzzles, peg board, stickers, play doh, lacing cards)
    • functional play (cars, balls, animals, marble track)
    • pretend play (doctor’s kit, toy kitchen with pots and pans, doll house with furniture, pirate ship and pirates, etc.)
    • cooperative play (board games, turn taking games such as Connect Four or Don’t Spill the Beans, craft supplies)
    • a few books and flash cards
  • structure    Switch out 1-2 of these bins every few weeks for another bin of toys in the same category.  Take the time to show your child how to use the “new ” toys.  Develop the habit of only one bin out at a time.  Limiting the amount of toys decreases overstimulation which fosters learning.  It also helps keep things neat and tidy!
  • stretch   Use a timer and challenge your child to play until the timer goes off.  Gradually increase the time of  play.
  • praise   Praise your child for playing well.

The development of play skills and language skills are closely intertwined.  It is impossible, especially in toddlers and preschoolers, to work on one without the other.  Children learn language as they play and develop more advanced play as they have the language to support it.  As parents, don’t overlook play as “work” or as an opportunity to teach and never assume that play is an easy, natural task for all children.  Sometimes, the mamas and the daddies gotta get in there and play too.


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