Everybody loves to learn when it's fun, and play is one way to help your preschooler develop while at the same time enjoying the learning experience. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that the three keys to raising a healthy child are sleep, food and play. Pretty much what Mommy wants, too -- especially the sleep! Encourage your preschooler to take every day as a play day.
Don't be worried if your child prefers to play alone. Solitary play is normal for children from birth through age three. This stage of play helps your child understand how hands and fingers work. Play helps discover shapes, textures and even explore different tastes. Babies and toddlers don't understand why some things can't be tasted, so you'll need to be on guard to extract everything but food from your child's mouth. Solitary play also involves touch, and feeling smooth or textured surfaces -- like taking time to explore your new leather sofa with sticky hands.
The parallel stage involves playing alone -- but along side other children doing the same type of play. A child in this stage typically isn't yet ready to interact during playtime. Most children by age 2 or 3 play this way. This is a normal reaction and there isn't any reason to force your child to play with others during this time. Your child might have more exploration work to do before moving onto the next play stage.
Your toddler looks at other children playing during the associative stage of play. Children pick the same toys to build similar block structures, but kids during this phase don't yet interact with other children in the room. Your preschooler learns modeling during this stage of play, and experiments in recreating the play of the other children. Your toddler might also parallel your actions when other children aren't around. This play isn't poking fun of you, it's modeling -- although not always accurately. Go with the flow and enjoy your toddler's fun during this stage.
By the time your little one reaches age 3, play involves making up games and actively looking for play with other children. Make-believe play now involves other children, and your toddler might put on your clothing or shoes and walk around just like you -- only with other children in similar gear. As birthday 5 nears, children generally enjoy play acting that resembles real life and insist on toys with accurate details -- including noticing things like Mickey Mouse is missing a few fingers and demanding to know why.
Children as Individuals
Your preschooler may go through all the play stages, but not all kids are alike. Some move into and out of the play stages slowly, while other children breeze through each phase. Give your child toys that allow active and imaginative play, and save the video play on digital screens for future years. The professionals who study kid play recommend getting in at least four years of serious play with old-school toys before moving into the world of high tech.