Summary of Play and Exploration Through the First Two Years of Life
Play and exploration often resemble one another, but they also differ in three areas: the affective state of the child, the amount of stereotypy in the child's behavior, and the focus of the child's attention. In exploring, children appear to be serious, they attend very closely to what they are doing, and they engage in stereotypical, almost ritualistic, behaviors. Children at play are more joyful, more willing to be distracted, and more diverse in their behavior.
Throughout the first year of life, children engage in a good deal of sensorimotor play: the repetition of an already learned sensory or motor activity for the sheer pleasure of doing it. At about the age of five months, infants begin to play with objects, but early object play is somewhat unsophisticated in the sense that infants are less interested in the properties of objects themselves than they are in their own actions upon them. By the age of 9 or 10 months, however, they begin to differentiate among objects; they prefer new to familiar objects, and they handle different objects differently, in such a way as to extract as much information from them as possible. Finally, object play in the second year is even more mature in that the child now combines objects in play, uses objects appropriately, and begins to incorporate objects into symbolic, or make-believe, play.
Symbolic play appears rather suddenly early in the second year, and its further development is characterized by a series of increasingly sophisticated levels. Development can be seen in each of the underlying elements of symbolic play: decentration, referring to the degree to which the child is able to shift the focus of its interest from self to external objects, decontextualization, the use of one object as a substitute for another, and integration, the organization of play into increasingly complex patterns.
The major function of adults in the play of infants is to be skilled social directors, initiating play routines, controlling the frequency with which new playthings are introduced, varying the intensity of play in response to the child's behavior, and providing support and encouragement. Mothers are less directive than fathers, they engage in more verbal and more instructive play than fathers do, and they engage in less rousing physical play with their infants. Parent-infant play is more sustained and more active than is solitary play or play with siblings, and it is more likely to teach the infant new skills.
Babies have a definite interest in peers, even during the first few months of life. It is not until the middle of the second year, however, that there is an extensive amount and variety of infant communication and that the first signs of cooperative peer play make their appearance. Social games with adults precede social games with peers because the adult is the initiator who provides the structure for the game. By the middle of the second year, however, infants are able to provide their own structure, and so peer games become possible.
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