As infants, children explore their physical and social world through their senses. Adults can facilitate learning through play by providing infants with opportunities to see, touch, taste, and smell a variety of phenomena. At this stage, give-and-take games such as peek-a-boo with loving, responsive adults help infants learn to interact socially.
At the toddler stage, children begin to develop the ability to engage in early pretend play - imitating familiar events in their lives. Toddlers experience strong emotions which they are not yet able to fully understand. By acting out emotion-laden scenes in their play, such as reassuring a doll that mommy will return, toddlers learn to cope with fears and they gain the self-control that will propel them to the next stage of development.
As children enter the preschool and kindergarten years, they begin to explore the world through indirect experiences such as stories, pictures, and television programs. Information gained in this way becomes the basis for imaginative play which takes children beyond the here and now.
At this stage, play activities such as drawing, building with blocks, dance, music, and crafts help children expand their knowledge and understanding of the world while developing eye-hand coordination and other motor skills. Children also become increasingly focused on peers at this stage. They benefit from play activities, props, and toys that encourage them to interact with others and engage in 'dramatic' make-believe play.
As children move into the elementary school years, the focus shifts from dramatic or pretend play to 'games with rules' and organized sports which require strategy and skill. Games with rules include traditional board games, card, video, and computer games, as well as physical games such as tag and 'red rover.' Through these play experiences, children hone their ability to relate to others, their gross motor skills, and their eye-hand coordination.
At about age 9 to 12, team sports take on increasing importance, helping children refine their abilities to reason, think strategically, and interact with others. They also refine these skills through play activities such as crafts, advanced building sets, science projects, sophisticated jigsaw puzzles, and computer and video games.
In many cases, play activities at this age become the basis for life-long interests and hobbies. While children begin to play less in the traditional sense as they move into their teenage years, they begin to transform their interests and hobbies into the 'play of the adult.'
Learning - and learning through play - is a continuous and rewarding journey!