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How Do Children’s Play Needs Change Throughout Childhood?

image of two children playign with a teddy bear

Children develop through play! Not only is it fun and natural, but children learn about themselves and the world around them when they engage in different kinds of play, from playing with dolls prams to exploring the outdoors.

Children’s play preferences change as they grow up and interact with other children. But this is normal and healthy as it allows children to develop social and fine motor skills the more they wish to participate in physical activities.

How children’s play needs and preferences change

As a child grows into themselves, they’ll develop personal preferences for play, which will change and evolve as they age.

Unoccupied play

Birth to 3 months

During this stage, babies are only really aware of people and objects within their immediate vicinity. They can see between 20 cm to a metre during this stage. Children will predominantly use their mouths and hands to explore things around them and occasionally use their feet.

Children of this age respond well to bright colours and sounds. The best toys for them should be easily washable, playful and soft and create sounds that rattle or are quite soothing. 

4 to 7 months

During this stage, children can start recognising familiar objects and learn about object permanence. They are also more mobile and can sit up and move around easily, which is why they engage in much more physical play. 

Therefore, children of this age must have soft and brightly coloured toys, although introducing your little one to books would be a great move! They can easily grip them without worrying about injury and learn to read with bright colours and fun illustrations.

Solitary play

8 to 12 months

During this stage, children develop their gross motor skills as they become more mobile. They will be able to do more unassisted than before, such as standing, crawling, climbing and walking with support.

Children engage in sensory play and often repeat actions they find enjoyable or stimulating. They begin to understand cause-and-effect relationships, so sensory toys are very enjoyable for children. 

Considering these senses, they may also show interest in drawing or colouring on paper. The best toys for children at this age are soft but sturdy toys that can be easily held and manipulated. 

12 to 18 months

During this stage, children begin to engage in pretend play because they can recognise familiar names, pictures, objects and people. They can imitate the actions of others and continue to explore cause-and-effect relationships on their own.

Moving around themselves is also a notable difference at this age as they can walk or climb around, exploring new environments. Holding on to objects becomes a lot easier as well. While very curious at this stage, they may not be able to understand the concept of consequence and forethought. 

19 to 23 months

Children begin to feel more comfortable being mobile and exploring their environment at this stage. Aside from walking and climbing, they’re now likely to jump off of things, organise things, kick a ball, and better handle and manipulate both small and large objects.

While still in a very curious phase, they’re better able to think ahead in certain situations. Children may start to prefer more realistic toys at this age as they get more into role-play, so action figures and interactive dolls are great introductions.

Spectator behaviour

2 years

At this age, pretend play is well-established in behaviour. Therefore, it makes sense that they would desire more realistic toys to immerse themselves in role-play. While all play pretend will still be solitary or aided by an adult, the child will start to grow awareness of other children and observe their actions. 

The play experiences may also become more artistic during this time as they are now aware that pictures can represent objects. This allows children to get creative and express themselves in fun and colourful ways. Children at this age also start to show more interest in cartoons and may begin to incorporate them into their play. This could be by dressing as characters from a show or acting out specific scenes. 

Considering their curious nature and ability to grasp certain concepts, this is also a great time to introduce educational toys. If your child is always asking questions about everything, you know it’s time to help them learn. 

Parallel play

2+ years

Children engage in more imaginative play at this age and are interested in more structured games than before. They’ll prefer realistic props for their play like toddler dolls prams but understand using them to represent other things if they wish.

At this age, they’re also better at creative play, such as participating in art activities. At this stage, children may play games parallel to others but show no interest in playing with other children.

Cooperative play

3 to 4 years

At this age, children develop the desire and ability to play with others. This is an important stage for a child’s play because it massively develops their social skills. It allows them to grow in confidence and improve their language skills as they communicate with other children. While they may still not quite understand the concept of sharing their toys, they can share in some form.

Imaginative and creative play are combined at this stage as they delve further into role play, taking on roles as a teacher, firefighter or doctor. This is also an excellent way for children to explore different jobs, careers or interests they might develop. 

Whether your little one wants to be a firefighter or a doctor, it’s great to let children play around with these roles. 

4+ years

From this stage onwards, it’s primarily child-initiated play with other children as they further develop their social skills, cognitive abilities and social intelligence. Their improved skills encourage children to play more complex games and create more complex pretend scenarios for themselves.

However, they might not fully understand the difference between reality and fantasy at this stage. Children may still believe in magic and monsters, for example. You’ll also find little repetition in roles at this stage, as children like to try new things constantly.

Physical play becomes a major signifier of your child’s development as they gravitate towards riding bikes, running, skipping and exercising in general. 

You can start challenging children at this age by introducing them to new things like how to work a computer. It can be important to teach these things early as they will develop a valuable skill they can take with them into adulthood. Let your child build and create fun art projects, have them piece together a puzzle or simply let them tell their own stories.

For more, read our guides on the role of adults in children’s play and how to extend children’s play.

FAQs about children’s play 

Why is it important to identify children’s play needs and preferences?

Observing your child closely while they play is important so you can learn about what interests them. Not only does this provide you with some insight into your child and what they like, but it also helps you understand how you can best support them. You can give them the right resources to help them flourish and enhance their play.

It also shows your child that you’re supporting and respecting their choices and are paying attention to them. For more, read our guide on why children’s play is important.

How does play influence a child’s development?

Play improves the social, physical, cognitive, and emotional skills of young children. Children learn more about the world around them and themselves while they play.

They’ll also grow in confidence and help them learn about the world and themselves. Play pretend can also improve their ability to empathise with others as they take on the role of different people with different backstories. 

Help your child’s development with Play Like Mum

Helping your child’s development is incredibly important which is why at Play Like Mum, we love supporting parents! With everything from dolls changing bags to twin doll strollers, we can help your child develop and learn more about themselves. For more information about child development, check out our other articles on our blog!