Hopeful (and wealthy) parents who are worried about their tot not being social enough to get into prestigious preschools in N.Y.C. can take their kids on a “mock playdate,” where a consultant will assess their child’s ability to play with others for a mere $400 per hour.
Why are we paying people $400 to teach our children how to play? (Well, I’m not, and I’m going to go ahead and assume you aren’t either). It's likely because, in certain circles, children’s schedules are so highly micromanaged and filled with lessons and classes, that kids aren’t given time to just play.
Before a child turns 5—and I would argue even after that point—play is children’s work. It is connected to a child’s social, mental and physical development. Access to open-ended toys (as in, no batteries) and time to use them give children the opportunity to learn how the world works, to develop their large and small muscles, to experiment and to use their imagination. And maybe most importantly, it teaches them how to get along with others. When we take free playtime away from our kids and structure every minute of their day, they lose a valuable piece of early learning.
How do you know if your child’s play skills are on track? There are four stages of play:
Parents often worry that their 2-year-old doesn’t play with other children and likes to play alone.
Picture your 10-month-old, sitting on the floor, pulling small toys out of a bucket, probably tasting each one before she throws it down. This is solitary play, and it’s a normal part of infancy. In solitary play, baby is absorbed in her play and focused on exploration. She does not look to other children to participate in it. That doesn't keep her from being social—she is. Games like patty-cake and peekaboo are favorites at this stage, but playtime is frequently a solo activity.
A lot of people think that babies need to learn to share—and they do, eventually. But until the age of 23 months, toddlers are fiercely protective of their belongings. So while you can surely encourage peace, love, and togetherness at baby playgroup, sharing skills don’t really begin to develop until your tot turns 2.
In toddlers, the first stage of group play is known as parallel play, and it begins to show up around 24 months. During parallel play, children play alone near each other. They have their own toys and do not try to influence each other’s play, but they may observe what another child is doing and change their own play because of it.
Parents often worry that their 2-year-old doesn’t play with other children and likes to play alone, but if they watch closely they’ll see that their child is actually engaged in parallel play. This stage appears after the first birthday, but is most commonly seen among 2- to 3-year-olds.
The next stage of play is associative play. Think of this stage as “together alone.” A group of preschool children might all be participating in the same activity, but they are not cooperating or working toward a common goal. At this stage, children learn about sharing their toys and begin to take turns with lots of adult assistance. Children watch and often copy each other’s play.
Finally, children learn cooperative play. The highest level of social play, children typically do not develop cooperative play until they are 4 or 5. In cooperative play, children interact with each other, form rules, assign roles and work toward a common goal. This is the stage where parents can finally sit back and enjoy themselves during a playdate, though kids will still need assistance working out problems.
Though these stages are progressive, children will learn each stage at different rates and will move back and forth along the ladder, using different kinds of play throughout the day. If you feel like your child has gotten “stuck” and is not progressing to the next stage, call your local early intervention agency (which will assess your child for free, not for $400 an hour!).