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I'm sure many of you have heard professionals talk about the importance of play during childhood. As the American Poet Diane Ackerman said, "Play is our brain's favorite way of learning." I could not agree more. If you have watched a child play, over time you will see their motor skills, cognitive skills, and speech/language skills develop. As a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP), observing a child's play can provide me with very useful information about their development. In fact, research shows that from birth to 3 or 3.5 years of age, play skills strongly correlate to cognitive development.
Extensive research has been conducted by various professionals, including SLPs, to map out play development as it relates to other areas of development (I even conducted my thesis on the topic of play and language development). Arguably the most well-known and frequently-referenced is the Westby Play Scale by Dr. Carol Westby. In her play scale, she describes stages of play from 9 months to 5 years of age. However, even if your child is not meeting these play milestones at the ages described, you can still follow this developmental outline to predict what play and language skills may emerge next in their development.
Westby Play Scale
Phase 1: Presymbolic
Presymbolic Level 1: 8-12 months
Play: Awareness of object when not seen (Ex: finds toy hidden under scarf)
Means-end behavior: crawls to get toy.
Uses some toys appropriately, doesn’t mouth all toys.
Language: No true language, but makes requests and commands.
Presymbolic Level 2: 13-17 months
Play: Purposeful exploration of toys.
Hands toy to adult if unable to operate.
Language: Makes commands, requests, protests, labels, responds, greets.
Phase 2: Symbolic
Symbolic Level 1: 17-19 months
Play: Autosymbolic- pretends to sleep, eat, drink from empty cup.
Uses most objects appropriately, tool use (uses stick to get toy), finds toys invisibly hidden.
Language: Beginning of true communication: functional and semantic relations- recurrence, existence, nonexistence, rejections, denial, agent, object, action/state, location.
Symbolic Level 2: 19-22 months
Play: Symbolic play extends beyond the child’s self. Plays with dolls (feeding, hair brushing), child pretends to be active with more than one person (feeds baby, himself, and mommy), combines two toys (pours tea from pot into cup).
Language: Refers to people/objects when not present.
Beginning of word combinations: agent-action, agent-object, action-object, attributive, dative, action-locative, object-locative, possessive.
Symbolic Level 3: 2 years
Play: represents daily experiences (plays house), events or short and isolated, no true sequencing, events short isolated- no true sequencing, block play is build up/ knock down.
Language: Uses all of the above in short phrases/sentences. Use morphological markers such as: possessives, plurals, present progressive and can answer Wh- questions.
Symbolic Level 4: 2 ½ years
Play: represents events less frequently experienced or observed (impressive or traumatic events: doctor/nurse sick child, teacher/child, store/shopping).
Language: Responds to Wh- questions appropriately accept WHY and asks WHY often inappropriately and doesn’t attend to the answer, asks Wh- questions usually puts the Wh- at the beginning of the sentence.
Symbolic Level 5: 3 years
Play: Continues previous stages but play now has sequence (child mixes cake, bakes it, eats it, washes dishes) the sequence evolves though, not planned. Reenacts experiences with new outcomes.
Language: Uses past tense (I ate), uses future tense (I’m gonna eat).
Symbolic Level 6: 3-3 ½ years
Play: Uses toys to create a scene (barn yard), uses blocks for imaginative play and represent various things (block can be a car and an airplane),uses doll as participant in play.
Language: descriptive vocab: color, shape, size, texture, gives dolls dialogue (he said), changes speech depending on listener.
Symbolic Level 7: 3 ½ - 4 years
Play: Begins to problem-solve, plans ahead (what if), builds 3-D structures to represent structures they have seen.
Language: Verbalizes intentions and future events (might, will, would, could), conjunctions (and, but, so, because), begins to respond appropriately to WHY and HOW questions.
Symbolic Level 8: 5 years
Play: PLANS a sequence of pretend events (organizes what he needs ex: other children and objects), coordinates more than one event happening at one time, highly imaginative (sets scene without realistic props), full cooperative play.
Language: Uses relational terms (then, when, first, next).
NOTE: FULL COMPETENCE OF THESE PLAY SKILLS IS NOT DEVELOP UNTIL 10-12 YEARS