What’s Play Got to Do With It? Understanding and Encouraging Toddler Play

September 28th, 2016

by Katrina Brooke

Children’s play tells family members and early childhood teachers so much about development. In fact, we often determine where children are developmentally by watching them play. During toddlerhood, children are exploring the world around them, learning about themselves and others, building language and literacy skills, and learning to regulate their behavior. And, they do it all through play.

The amount of time children spend in uninterrupted self-directed play—when no one is teaching them, when they are free to decide what and how to play—has declined tremendously in educational settings and in the home lives of children. This decline worries early childhood teachers, as play is often seen as integrative—offering children opportunities to try on new behaviors to see how they fit and then to add these behaviors to their skill repertoires. Self-directed play can be active (running round the playground on a bike path), quiet (looking at a book or cradling a doll), or a combination (trying on Dad’s shoes and trying to walk in them).

There are three theorists who are especially important to our understanding of play—Jean Piaget, Mildred Parten, and Lev Vygotsky. They describe play in different ways, but each one is useful for understanding the play behavior you see in your classroom.

Theories of Play

Piaget’s Play Behavior Theory

Piaget divided play into three types of “play behavior”—practice play, symbolic play, and play-with-rules. Practice play, the most common type of play during the first years of life, is composed of repetitions of the same movements and actions, both with and without objects. When a baby plays peek-a-boo, hiding his face behind a blanket, over and over again, this is practice play. When children move on to symbolic play, they begin to recreate in their play the things they see in the world around them. They develop a sense of themselves as independent from their parents and caregivers and use play to explore being like these important people, as well as to experiment with being very different from them.

Parten’s Stage Theory

Mildred Parten’s stage theory describes the ways children interact with each other. During solitary independent play, children play alone with objects without interacting with others even when they are near. Parallel activity emerges next, with children playing side by side with similar toys—next to each other, but not with each other. In associative play, children play with each other, but there is no particular goal or organization to their play. Cooperative play is the final, and most sophisticated, form of play. In this stage, children cooperate with others to create play situations, with each child in the group playing an assigned role. Parents and early childhood teachers see mostly parallel and associative play with their toddlers although cooperative play emerges for most children by the end of this period.

Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory

Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory says that children socially construct what they know by using language. He is known for the idea of the zone of proximal development (ZPD), which is the range of tasks a child can do with help but cannot do on their own. Play, particularly make believe play, creates a ZPD as the child plays.

Understanding Toddler Play

What do these ideas mean to those of us who work with toddlers? First of all, it helps us understand that toddler play is different. Toddlers are very capable of playing with intensity and creativity but the way they play is different from older children. They play in the moment, with the ideas that come to them from their experience or the environment. This play isn’t as recognizable as the socio-dramatic play of preschoolers. They may use one object to serve as another, get distracted from what they are playing when they discover a new prop or toy, or stop to watch others in mid-play. They pick up on others’ play ideas to make them uniquely their own. Although older toddlers are very interested in what other children are doing, much of toddler play is done alone, even if the classroom is full of children. And toddler play is highly repetitive. In fact, it is repetition that helps children understand and remember what they learned and recall and use it later. Toddler play can be remarkably sophisticated and provides us with insight into their thinking.

Toddlers are fascinated by other children and find watching their activities highly engaging and entertaining. Yet the ability to play with other children is just emerging—and needs support and encouragement from the trusted adults in their lives. When toddlers play, they subtly adjust the way they play to the play of their friends to keep the play going—an early indicator that they understand how others are feeling.

Toddler play can be remarkably sophisticated and provides us with insight into their thinking.

Toddlers love to role-play. They actually become the mommy or daddy or the growling bear, rather than acting like them, as they make use of the play props provided. Toys that are real items from the child’s world (purses, wallets, pots, pans, clothes, shoes, hats) are intriguing and support beginning role-play efforts. Toddler play needs these props—they invite children to play and give them ideas about where to start. Carefully plan the classroom to take maximum advantage of toddlers’ natural desire to explore and learn. Create a play environment that offers children interesting places to play, both alone and with their friends. Watch out for both over-stimulation and under-stimulation. Over-stimulation can occur from too much noise, light, color, and activity. Under-stimulation can occur from too few options or too little support for play by caring adults.

Play cues can come from many sources. The best source of play cues is you. When you pick up a toy and play with it or sit down at the table to see if you can fit a puzzle piece into the puzzle, the toy or puzzle becomes very interesting to toddlers. This strategy for inviting play is an excellent way to interest toddlers in new materials or props. But most toddlers are readily able to turn one toy into another (a banana into a telephone or a block into a car) with little difficulty. The way in which toys are displayed also provides play cues. Place toys on low shelves, in clear plastic containers, in baskets, and in tubs so children can see what is available. Separating toys on shelves helps children consider each specific item. Too much clutter can distract from being able to focus on one item long enough to figure out what to do with it or how to use it.

Your Role as an Adult

When you participate in toddlers’ play—particularly when there are peers involved— you help them play successfully and learn to be a friend. Participating keeps you close enough to problem solve when the inevitable conflicts occur. Toddlers have many social difficulties as they learn to play together successfully. They have limited skills in controlling impulses, delaying gratification, using expressive language, entering play, reading social cues, and regulating emotions. These difficulties show up in various ways, but are most often seen in interactions that don’t work out so well. They need you to help and being close by insures that you can help when you are needed.

Spend time creating the right interactive and physical environment to nurture toddlers’ play.

When you are close by, you can extend the play experience by what you say. Open-ended questions such as, “Where are you taking the baby for a walk?” and “How will you build the house?” give toddlers opportunities to add to and elaborate on the play experiences they are having.

Of course children don’t just have positive play experiences, particularly during the toddler years. They often have disagreements over whether others can play, what they can play with, and the possible roles they can play. How children handle negative play experiences is just as important as how they handle positive ones. If they are able to find another way to play (such as being the puppy when they can’t be the mommy), join in the play as an onlooker (when their favorite role is filled by someone else), find another place to play, or call to the teacher for help, the play experience can still be a positive one.

Play is a staple of childhood. For toddlers, play serves as an important proving ground for the more complicated social world to come. When toddlers play, they build an understanding of how they can impact and interact with objects and others. This understanding is foundational—it will serve as the basis for a lifetime of successful relationships and learning. Spend time creating the right interactive and physical environment to nurture toddlers’ play. With your support, their play can be engaging, enlightening, and sustained.


Kay Albrecht

Kay Albrecht, Ph.D., is president of Innovations in Early Childhood Education in Houston, TX. Teaching in some capacity has been the bulk of Kay’s life work, beginning as a preschool teacher and continuing as a program director and a teacher educator.  The author of The Right Fit: Recruiting, Selecting, and Orienting Staff, co-author of the Innovations series of curriculum and training materials, and Social Emotional Tools for Life: An Early Childhood Teacher’s Guide.


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