Tag Archives: child development

Stages of Play

Children’s play evolves as they get older. Mildred Parten developed a theory in the 1930’s that is still used today, although some of the details and timing have been re-interpreted over the years.

  1. Unoccupied Play—birth and up. Babies gaze at the world and absorb information, but don’t seem to be doing anything.
  2. Solitary Play—3 months and up. Babies or toddlers explore toys and their environment. They don’t really notice other children.
  3. Onlooker Play—9 months and up. They watch other children play but don’t join in.
  4. Parallel Play—18 months—3 years. Children play side by side. They often look like they aren’t paying attention to each other, but one will mimic what the other one is doing.
  5. Associative Play—3 years and up. Playing separately but on the same project (building a block city  together). Talking together, problem-solving together.
  6. Cooperative Play— 4 years and up. Playing WITH a friend. Some examples:
  • Dramatic / Fantasy play: Dress-up, school, etc. Pretending to be characters in the same scenario.
  • Competitive play: Sports, board games, tag, hide and seek.
  • Constructive play: Building with blocks, making a fort, sculpting a sand castle.

Note: Ages given are for kids playing together with peers. If they are playing with someone of a higher developmental level, they can achieve more. (e.g. a one year old can parallel play with an adult, a 2 year old may be able to do cooperative play with an older sibling.)

When watching children play on the playground, or in the classroom, can you identify each of these types of play?

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Child Development Milestones

When we look at child development, we always want to look at the whole child, not just one set of skills, so experts have divided developmental milestones into the 5 categories below.

Children develop skills on a fairly predictable timeline, but can have uneven development – for example, a 24 month old may have the motor skills we expect of a 30 month old, and the communication skills typical of an 18 month old… if you look at that same child 6 months later, they may have surged in their communication skills. Temperament and interest levels have big effects on which skills they focus most on, but parents can also ensure they have opportunities and encouragement to develop in all these areas.

It is helpful for parents to have a good working knowledge of typical development (see the resources post for great information) so they know if their child is on track, and children may also benefit from occasional screenings to make sure children are progressing well. (You can complete the ASQ developmental screening online anytime.)

Gross Motor (aka Large Motor)

These skills include: running, jumping, throwing, kicking, climbing, and dancing.

To build these skills, ensure that your child has plenty of time and opportunity to move: playgrounds, indoor gyms, hikes in the woods where they can balance on logs, going up and down stairs, tumbling on a mat. Try for a mixture of free play time where they explore movement on their own, and playing together. Kids love wrestling with parents, dancing, chasing around the house together, kicking a ball together. You can teach basic skills of any sport – just don’t expect them to follow rules yet!

Fine Motor

Fine motor skills allow a child to pick up and manipulate small objects. These skills help them to feed themselves, dress themselves, hold a pencil, and other essential skills for independence.

You can help build these skills with activities like: coloring / drawing / painting, threading beads onto a pipe cleaner, threading pipe cleaners through the holes on a colander, putting dried beans inside a bottle, taking lids on and off containers, feeding them small and slippery finger foods (like diced peaches), letting them feed themselves with a fork or a spoon, and stacking blocks.

If your child tends to still mouth small objects, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let them use small items ever…  but you should supervise them when they play, and put small items away when you’re done.

Social-Emotional Development

These skills can be seen when your child copies your actions, notices the emotions of other people, shows empathy for others, or plays games where they are pretending to be/do something.

These skills are primarily built in interaction with others. However, children can also learn a lot about social interaction and emotions by reading books or watching TV. When you read to your child, talk about the emotions the characters may be feeling. Talk about the ways they are interacting with each other – are they being nice? Mean? How does their behavior make the other characters feel?

Language & Communication

Communication is not just saying words out loud. Especially for a young toddler, we want to know: do they seem to understand the words that are said to them (e.g. Can they follow simple directions – like ‘close the door’? If asked to point at a picture of a cat, can they do so? Do they point/gesture to indicate what they want? Do they follow your gestures? Can they name a few familiar objects?)

The best way to build language skills is to follow your child’s lead… rather than throwing language at them about what you see around you, first watch them. What are they looking at? What has their attention at the moment? Talk to them about that, giving them words to describe what they see.

Cognitive Development: Problem-Solving

This is about using tools, and solving challenges. For example, a child who sees a toy you put on the counter out of reach, then gets a stool and pushes it over to the counter and climbs up on the stool to get the toy is a great problem-solver! (And a frustrating child to parent!)

To build problem-solving skills, give them challenges: puzzles, shape sorters, tasks that require multiple steps (first you take the lid off the box, then you put the toy in, then you put the lid back on the box), sorting objects by color or size or other characteristics, and putting toys away in their proper places. Allow your child to become frustrated without always “rescuing” them from that frustration. Notice their triggers, and signs that frustration is building, and move in for a little extra support, but don’t just take over and do the task for them – they can learn through those challenges. You can sit with your child and provide emotional support for their feelings of frustration while still encouraging them to keep trying to solve the puzzle. You may suggest things they could try, but don’t do it for them.

It can be helpful to watch other children at the playground in your child’s classes to get a sense of typical development, but try not to compare your child too much to other children. They all develop in their own way at their own pace.

I still remember something that happened when my now 20-year-old was a toddler. I was very proud that they were stringing together simple 2 word phrases – ‘throw ball’, ‘more crackers’, and ‘doggy book’. Then I talked with a friend who had a child the same age… she said her child had said the day before ‘Hey Grandma, Grandpa, come downstairs, breakfast ready.’ I was devastated, feeling like there was something wrong with my child. But then later in that conversation, I shared how my child had played at the park that week, climbing up the ladder on the slide, sliding down, then climbing up the slide itself and sliding back down. The other mom sheepishly admitted that her child could barely climb on and off the couch!

That’s when it became clear that at that moment in time, my child was working on physical skills and hers was working on verbal skills. Developmental theorists will tell you it all evens out in time, and I can also tell you the same from my experience. Those two children are now a sophomore at Oberlin College and a sophomore at Reed College, and both very bright independent young adults with solid skills in all developmental areas. It all works out in the end…

Resources for Understanding Child Development

This is a collection of all my favorite resources for understanding developmental milestones, and enhancing your child’s development at any stage.

Great Resources for Understanding Child Development, Tailored to the Age of Your Child:

Just in Time Parenting from eXtension. 8 page newsletters, which include sections on milestones (how I talk, how I understand, how I move), activities parents can do to enhance development, and tips for managing the predictable challenges of each phase. Issues are available in 2 month intervals (e.g. 19 – 20 months; 21 – 22 months, etc. Up to 5 years.) You can subscribe to receive free automatic email updates every two months, or you can download any newsletter issue now at: http://jitp.extension.org/

Zero to Three. Healthy Minds, Nurturing Your Child’s Development: Each 2 page handout includes a summary of what your child is capable of, ideas for activities you can do to enhance development, and questions to ask yourself about your child. Toddler handouts for 12 – 18 months, 18 – 24 months, and 24 – 36 months. www.zerotothree.org/about-us/areas-of-expertise/free-parent-brochures-and-guides/age-based-handouts.html

Screening Tools to Assess Whether Your Child is Developing Normally

Ages and Stages Questionnaire: http://asqoregon.com/. This questionnaire takes about 15 minutes to complete online. It will ask 6 questions in each of 5 areas of development: small motor skills, large motor, communication, problem-solving, and personal-social. If your child is developing normally, you will see that you will mark some of the skills as “yes, my child has mastered this”, some as “my child can sometimes do this” and some as “not yet.” After you complete the questionnaire, you will receive a brief summary of the results. Learn more about the ASQ and interpreting your results. Up to 6 years. (Note, this screening is also available at www.easterseals.com/mtffc/asq/)

In Seattle/King County, professional ASQ screenings are available free at Parent Trust for Washington Children. www.parenttrust.org/index.php?page=asq

Learn the Signs, Act Early from the Centers for Disease Control. One page checklists of “What Most Children Do at This Age” AND checklists of “Act Early by Talking to Your Child’s Doctor if Your Child Does Not Do…” In English and Spanish. Up to 5 years. www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/downloads.html

Pathways Sensory-Motor Checklist. Checklists of: play and social skills, coordination milestones, ability to manage daily activities, and self-expression. A list of milestones – if your child has achieved most, they are on track. If there are multiple items in a category that your child is not consistently capable of, discuss with a professional.  https://pathways.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/sensorymotorchecklist_english.pdf. Up to 7 years.

Resources for activities that stimulate development

Ideas for Activities to enhance all areas of development, and an overview of brain development: www.bbbgeorgia.org/parentsActivities.php

Learning Opportunities in Everyday Activities (e.g. laundry!) www.bornlearning.org/learning-on-the-go

For each age, ideas to enhance learning in creative arts, language, literacy, math, science, emotional growth. Up to age 8.
www.pbs.org/parents/child-development/