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The importance of play development in infants and toddlers

A Toddler’s Job is to Play

We often take for granted the power of play and how critical it is to the overall development of our little ones in birth to three years old and beyond. A toddler’s job is to play, but what does that mean and what does that look like at different stages?

As early interventionists, one of the first skills we observe and assess is how the child is interacting with their environment, including not only interaction with objects around them but also the people around them. Babies first start to “play” in a social manner. They begin responding to caregivers, smiling at them, and talking to them at a very, very young age. This can happen as early as 4-6 weeks of age.

Social play is where it all begins and then we start seeing them interact with toys and objects around them as they continue to grow and become more curious. Motor skills also contribute to the development of play skills. As you watch a baby develop more controlled motor movements, you see them start reaching for objects or a caregiver’s face or hands. Then they start grabbing and holding objects with intentionality. Next comes the cause-and-effect phase where they might push a button and get a toy to make a sound.

As we move into the toddler years, this concrete play starts to develop into more pretend play. You may have your baby try to feed you pretend food and then do this same action on a doll or stuffed animal, or they might pick up a block and pretend it is a phone. Toddlers start imitating what they see others doing in their environment which is also a part of developing those pretend play skills.

But why is this so important and why do we put so much emphasis on play? Research and knowledge of developmental skills supports the fact that a child’s language skills will grow alongside their play skills. If play skills are hindered, language development and later, speech development will also be hindered.

Parents often ask what they can do to enhance play skills. It seems simple but it is so important to show/model for your toddler pretend play with objects. Allow them to watch you stir food in the kitchen and then offer them the opportunity to try and pretend stir in their own bowl. Show them how to take a toy animal and walk it into a “barn” and pretend to eat and drink while modeling sound affects for them or animal sounds. Narrate (talking about what your child is doing or what you are doing) during these activities so your toddler is also hearing a rich variety of different vocabulary words. Most importantly, follow your child’s lead in play and have fun!

Children learn best when it is relevant to their interests, and they are having fun!

Adapted from Carol Westby’s Symbolic Play Checklist
9-12 months: awareness that objects exist.
13-17 months: purposeful exploration of toys; discover of operation of toys.
18-19 months: uses most common toys and objects appropriately. Pretends to drink from a cup.
20-22 months: performs pretend activities on more than one person or object.
24 months: represents daily experiences during play activities. Events are isolated. Ex: puts food in pan and stirs.
30 months: represents events less frequently experienced or observed. Events are short and isolated. Ex: shopping, going to the doctor.
36 months: play begins to develop sequences. Ex: mix cake, put in oven, set timer, get out of oven.

By Katie Bally, Sumner County Infant/Toddler Services Coordinator, Speech-Language Pathologist

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