Play is an integral aspect in the life of children, and provides the basis for much of the learning that takes place from infancy and throughout childhood. Because of its importance, a thorough understanding of play is critical for all professionals working with infants, toddlers, and young children and their families. Casby (2003a) stated, "few areas of development are as important to early intervention as play" (p. 163). Often the only avenue for assessing the developmental skills of young children is through observation of their play.
A variety of research studies have shown that children's play behaviors are correlated with changes across developmental domains including social-emotional, linguistic, and cognitive. Much of the research has documented those connections with typically developing children (Westby, 1991); whereas other studies have investigated play behaviors of children evidencing a variety of developmental delays (Casby & McCormack, 1985; Casby & Ruder, 1983; Rescorla & Goossens, 1992). Generally, those results have shown that children across a range of disability types tend to have delays in play skills, especially symbolic play. Those investigations have included children with language impairments (Rescorla & Goosens; Terrel & Schwartz, 1988), Down syndrome (Wright, Lewis, & Collis, 2006), and autism (Jarrold, Boucher, & Smith, 1993).
The results of research investigations have provided practitioners with (1) information for understanding the development of play skills as children age; (2) correlations between specific play behaviors and the acquisition of other developmental skills; and (3) avenues for assessing and fostering play skills in children. Thus, information obtained from assessing play skills may be used to help diagnose specific disabilities in children. In addition, information about the development of play can be used to structure family-centered intervention services for children and their families. Finally, curricula for preschool and young school-age children often uses play to improve cognitive, preliteracy, and social skills (Zigler & Bishop-Josef, 2004). However, before the information about play can be applied for assessment and intervention purposes, it is important to know the sequence or stages of play development.
What Is Play?
What does it mean to "know about" play? A number of researchers have attempted to define and describe the play behaviors of infants and young children. For example, play behaviors are sometimes described according to how they differ from non-play behaviors (Garvey, 1990; Rubin, Fein, & Vandenberg, 1983). In addition, play is often described as having little structure, with the play evolving and changing at the whim of the players. The child's creativity abounds, and a positive affect is displayed. The process of the play, or how the play unfolds, is often viewed as more important than any outcomes or end result of the play process (Segal, 2004).
The work of Piaget (1962) provides an appropriate avenue for describing play development, and has been used to explain the increasingly advanced stages of play demonstrated by babies, toddlers, and young children (Casby, 2003b). Piaget's theory of development has also been used to describe the critical components of play that include:
- the role of self and others,
- the use of objects, and
- the sequences of actions and activities while playing.
These play components develop as children explore objects, learn about their properties, and acquire the ability to cause certain events to happen.