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Adhd or just naughty
Good kids - bad behaviour
Bringing home a sibling
Children and change
Children and play - your baby
Children and TV - How much is too much?
Children and TV - How much is too much? (Winter)
Effects of PND on kids benefits
New baby... are you psychologically prepared
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Play is to children what work is to adults. Play is their university which will help them to learn, to explore, to compete, to create, to socialize, to internalize and to have fun. Lets take a closer look at why children play, what is appropriate play at different age and stages of development and what you can do to facilitate this important activity.

Why do children play?

Babies are born helpless. In fact, they are so helpless, that if you left them in a room full of food they would die. Not only because they couldn’t get to it, but also because they couldn’t digest it. Psychologically, they defend against these extremely helpless feeling with an omnipotent fantasy that they are completely in control of their world. When babies cry and you come running with a breast or a bottle, they think they magically made you appear. And this is emotionally healthy. Babies and young children are supposed to think magically about their own, egocentric needs. And perhaps this is the beginning of building an imaginary world. For children, the boundaries between fantasy and reality are diffuse. That is why they can turn a block into a cell phone, or a book into a hat. But they can also turn you into a fairy princess when you do what they want, or a wicked witch if you don’t. The power of fantasy and play is that it gives the child power in his inner experience, when he is helpless and dependent in reality.

Here’s a typical example: Sara lines up her dolls and shouts at them for being naughty. What she is doing is pretending to be her mom who shouted at her for being naughty just the other day. Sara is coming to terms with her difficult feelings about being shouted at through play. She feels helpless in reality and so she defends against this helplessness by becoming very powerful in fantasy. So she becomes the mom and shouts at the dollies. In this sense, children play as a way of dealing with their experiences. It is a healthy form of working through their anxieties, their thoughts and feelings.

But children play for many different reasons. They play with others as a way of engaging with them, they play in order to explore, they play in order to practice a skill, and of most importantly – they play for pleasure!

What is age appropriate in play?

The first 18 months

Infants in the first 12 months explore their world through the senses. They enjoy sensorimotor play. They derive pleasure from holding, eating, touching and feeling objects around them.

The first owned play object is a “transitional object” such as a blanket or dummy or teddy or bottle, etc. This object is very important to the young child because he has complete control over it. As he grows he becomes more independent and he looses complete control over adults in his world. He realizes that he can’t magically make mom do what he wants. This might cause distress that can erupt into terrible temper tantrums. Why? Because he was living with the illusion that he had complete control over his world and others in it. Now he is learning that this is not the case. But when it comes to his transitional object, he still has the magic! He can throw it and bite it and kick it and it won’t retaliate like mom or big brother will. One mom said that her son’s teddy is like his Prozac! He calms down in an instant when he has it near. Not all children have transitional objects and this is normal too. Some parents are not aware of them, but they exist – such as mom’s hair or feeling her chest, or a part of the nappy or a cot sheet, etc. Transitional objects are a healthy part of emotional development and play and should not be thrown away prematurely. There was a study, which observed two groups of children – all of whom had a transitional object. The experimental group was chosen because they suddenly lost a parent and the control group had not. Results show that those who lost a parent also lost interest in their transitional objects. If this object is seen as a “crutch” then surely these children would have become more dependent on it? But just the opposite was found. When the parent was alive and well, so was the object. Therefore, it is not a crutch at all. It is a healthy part of emotional development because it is a play object which represents the transition from the outside world of reality to the inside word of fantasy.

18 – 36 months

In the second year of life, toddlers enjoy exploring the world. They will want to gain control over their experiences and will explore with this goal in mind. Pouring, throwing, pulling, etc will be popular activities at this age. But the 18 – 24 month old child is no longer happy to bring things to your lap – now he wants you to “come” so that he can share his adventures with you. Perhaps that is why all parents of 2 year olds look so washed out!

Socially, toddlers will play side by side mostly (parallel play). They don’t engage in social play as yet but they are socially alert. They protest at sharing and take control of toys and activates at the slightest provocation. A very popular form of social play at this age is rough-and-tumble play. This is a wonderful way for children to explore the limits of what is fun and what is not; what is appropriate and what is not. Many moms complain that rough-and-tumble play always ends up in tears! But perhaps that is why it is helpful because it gives children a chance to explore where the limits lie to social interactions (or maybe it’s dad’s that need to learn!).

3 – 6 years

By three they are beginning to engage in symbolic or pretend play. This is when a stick can be a horse or a house. Symbolic play usually has props, a plot and roles. This is also when your daughter wants to be mommy, a teacher, a fairy or a princess – or when your son is hardly himself because he is always superman or whatever. Dress up is famous at this stage of development because it allows children to play different roles in their pretend play.

Practice play is also important where children will repeat behaviors in order to learn new skills. Practice play starts as early as 6 months and continues into adulthood. It is not uncommon to see a five year old spend a long time kicking a ball into the air in order to catch it. The five-year-old child will enjoy feeling capable and competent in his world and will engage in much practice play in order to achieve mastery.

Social play with peers increases dramatically in the 3 –6 year old child. The 3 year old begins to engage with others rather than play beside them, and by 6 friends become an important part of the school day.

Based upon the different ways in which children play at different ages and stages of development here are some suggestions for toys.




0 - 12 Months

Sensorimotor play where children experience the world through their senses
Toys that appeal to the senses: brightly colored toys are visually stimulating. Tactile toys might have different parts to touch allowing babies to explore hard and soft, rough and smooth, etc. Use these words to label the different textures in order to build their vocabulary.

12 - 24 Months

Exploratory play where children explore the physical world around them and how it works.

Practice play where toddlers practice the same activity over and over in order to go for mastery.

Toys, which give children a sense of control and allow for practice. Such as:
Posting blocks in a box
Putting pegs in a whole
Pouring activities
Opening and closing activities
Stacking and building activities
Hiding and finding activities
Running, jumping, bending, sliding, twirling, and throwing are all popular activities for this age.

24 - 36 Months

Symbolic play where children explore in fantasy what they can’t always control in reality. This is when children work through anxieties from their everyday experiences. They can be mom or teacher or ballerina or Batman, etc.


Dress up should be encouraged. The less specific these outfits are, the greater chance there is for children to use their imagination. I do not recommend that you buy dolls that walk and talk and eat etc. Why? Because this takes away the opportunity for the child to imagine crying or to imagine eating! When toys are too suggestive they rob the child of their natural capacity to imagine.

3 - 6 Years

Symbolic play continues.

Social play becomes increasingly important.

Construction and creative play should be encouraged as well as games. Games help children to build their social skills. Games help children to take turns, to play fairly, sportsmanship and reciprocity.

Creative toys are valuable such as:
Crayons, paints, chalk, paper, scissors, glue, etc

Create lots of opportunities for friendships. Playing with too many children at once can be frustrating for children at this age.

Construction toys include:
Building blocks (Lego)
Science experiments
Make and bake
Obstacle courses

Games: hide and seek, musical chairs, Simon says, Mini soccer, Mini cricket, marbles, cards, snap, memory game, hopscotch, etc

The fifth disc in the Raising Children Effectively series has just been released. If you order the remaining CD's from us now we will send you a copy of Sheryl's NEW RELEASE TV, toy guns and sex education at no charge. Total cost including package is R320,00 (R80,00 each). Contact us at sheks@icon.co.za or sms your telephone number to 082 883 0536 and we will contact you.
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