Play combines prerequisites of joint attention and imitation and encourages problem solving, creativity, risk-taking, and flexibility in thinking. Play is said to greatly facilitate the sensory, motor, social, and emotional development of children. In addition, strong play skills are said to correlate with the language skills. Play develops early in the first months of life and is said to emerge in complexity as children develop.
The foundations for play are established early in development as children learn from others in their environment through back and forth interaction (e.g. peek a boo, patty cake, singing.) Early play develops in infancy when babies learn to use their bodies and objects purposefully for movement, activation of sound, and cause-effect. Before 1 year of age, children engage in onlooker play where they watch and observe the people around them to learn how objects function.
Between 1-2 years of age, children engage in self-directed, solitary or independent play where they play by themselves. Use of inanimate objects for pretend play begins to emerge. The ability to develop and sequence actions for play emerges (e.g. placing people in a toy bus, driving the bus on the floor.)
Between 2-3 years of age, children develop communicative intent to engage with others in parallel play, sitting near others, while still maintaining independent play. As motor skills develop, so do play skills when toys and objects can take on different functions and be used in varying capacities.
Between 3-4 years, children engage in associative play where they vary their use of partner-based with independent play. By age 4, children engage in cooperative play where play schemes become solely partner-based and turn-taking is used to take the lead, follow the lead of another, and change roles as needed in varying contexts.
Play is further characterized by the form in which it is developed. Functional play involves the investigation of how common objects function (e.g. instruments, jack in the box.) Construction play is described as imaginative building with tangible objects (e.g. blocks, legos.) Game play is play which is rule-based which involves turn-taking elements (e.g. card games, board games). Outdoor and movement play combines play with physical activity (e.g. kickball, tag.) Symbolic/dramatic/pretend play is characterized by imaginative play with common everyday experiences (e.g. dress up, playing doctor.)
For play to develop, adults are encouraged to allow children to take the lead as much as possible in play, allowing them to experiment individually and with others as they use objects in a variety of ways. Encouraging a wide range of play types with a variety of play partners can help establish the versatility needed to learn and engage in later development.