Let’s Play!!!

The good old days of Pre-K… going back to the classroom after lunch and playing… different stations set up around the room: puzzles, the kitchen area, a store complete with a cash register, maybe even a space to play doctor. Today we expect so much from children, too much sometimes.  We can’t forget how important play time is for healthy development (it certainly touches social, cognitive, physical, and language elements of developing). What will happen when the day comes where our school systems become so focused on 4-year-olds sitting rigidly at desks reciting things and supposedly learning to read? Little kids aren’t built to sit still all day, they need time to explore and interact with their peers. Playing IS learning.

Play is one of the 3 behavioral aspects of the Sensorimotor Stage of cognitive development. As mentioned in my previous post, play allows children to learn about their world and the people in it.

Carol Westby is a Speech-Language Pathologist who has written articles about play development in young children. SLPs often use play as a way of assessing a child’s cognitive abilities. Westby explains that play is “a means of expression and a means of interpretation.”  The expressive aspect of play allows the child to show us what their mental representations of the world are. They exhibit their knowledge and how they apply that knowledge to real world situations.  As an interpretive tool, play allows children to learn about people and events.

Westby categorizes different levels of play, breaking them down by age. There are 2 Presymbolic Levels and 8 Symbolic Levels that children go through during development. Here are the ages corresponding to each stage:

play          Presymbolic Level I- 8-12 mos

          Presymbolic Level II- 13-17 mos


          Symbolic Level I-       17-19 mos

          Symbolic Level II-     19-22 mos

          Symbolic Level III-    2 yrs

          Symbolic Level IV-    2 ½ yrs

          Symbolic Level V-     3 yrs

          Symbolic Level VI-    3-3 ½ yrs

          Symbolic Level VII-   3 ½ – 4 yrs

          Symbolic Level VIII- 5 yrs


[Objects start to enter infant’s play environments around 6 months of age. Prior to this, play is mostly social (doing things like imitating the mother’s gestures). It is also important to note that an infant’s first meaningful word will be produced at about 12 months.]

Object permanence is established in Presymbolic Level I, so that in Level II, the infant starts to become active problem solvers. They are now able to navigate a toy with levers and buttons, learning cause-effect relationships of their actions (if I push this button, music will play). Problem solving is also important for meeting needs of the child.  If an object is beyond their reach, they might point to that object while looking at an adult. Another variation on problem solving is being aware of “in-ness”. Instead of trying to stuff their hand through a small opening of a container to retrieve the contents, the child will turn the container over for the contents to spill out. Much more effective!


In my next post I’ll describe some features of the Symbolic Levels of play development. Enjoy the rest of your weekend!  

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    • Jason Tougaw on April 8, 2014 at 12:05 pm

    Fascinating. I’d love to read some of Westby’s research. Your discussion reminds me of Nietzsche’s famous aphorism, from Beyond Good and Evil (1886), “”A man’s maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child, at play.” Freud also makes arguments about the seriousness of play and development in his essays “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming” and “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.”

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