I have the pleasure of observing children everyday as part of my job and as a mom. My nephews are currently visiting for three weeks as well, so I am surrounded by young children constantly. Today, my two year old and his one and three year old cousins were together at my house, playing and interacting. I was struck by the types of play each chose…the one year old is still learning about objects and what they are, the two year old is beginning to engage in symbolic play (the foundation of representational thought), and the three year old is actively role playing, using a lot of symbolic and imaginative play and changing his own persona to play a part. Each of these distinct types of play is also a learning platform. One year olds are experimenting with the nature of everything around them. By rolling, throwing, and even mouthing a ball, they learn about the properties of that ball and how it is like other round things and different from a stuffed bear or a book. He is beginning to categorize based on new knowledge of an object…very definitely learning through playing.
The two year old is beginning to demonstrate some representational thought through symbolic play. This is simply replacing an actual object with another object (or an imaginary object) to represent the actual object. The level of symbolic play becomes more and more advanced as children develop throughout the preschool and early primary years. My son is rather obsessed with the telephone. He has play telephones that he still uses, but he now will use just about anything he can find to represent a telephone. He even uses his hand now and doesn’t need an object to “stand in” for the phone. He walks up and down the upstairs hallway talking away on his “phone” and imitating what he has seen me do. Symbolic play is very important to pre-reading. Letters and words are also representational, abstract forms and children who have not had opportunities to develop symbolic play will most likely have a harder time learning to read.
My three year old nephew has very advanced symbolic play skills. He is constantly taking on the characteristics of another person or an animal and he remains in character for a period of time. This is wonderful, imaginative play, but it is also a platform for him to try out emotions or concepts he is thinking about in a protected way. He is learning about himself and the world around him through his play.
So, don’t worry if your six or seven year old is still pretending to be a horse or a superhero. This is what childhood is about! Play truly is the work of childhood, and I hope we never forget that.