How Play Differs From Child to Child

How Play Differs From Child to Child

While there are many similarities in the ways toddlers and preschoolersplay, it's the differences that are particularly interesting. One child maybe enthralled by a dollhouse, while her cousin prefers trains; a classmatemay revel in hitting a golf ball, while a neighbor would rather imaginethat same ball to be a magical talisman left by a powerful wizard. Still,no matter how children play, their goal is the same: to understand theworld around them and their role in it. By watching your child play, youcan find out how she thinks, what she's learning, and how the world —including you — is influencing her. The window into these insights is play.

How Adults Influence Play
Back in the 1970s, psychologist Phyllis Katz conducted what we now call theBaby X experiment. She put three toys in a room: a small football, afeminine doll, and a gender-neutral toy. Then she dressed a 3-month-old inan unadorned yellow jumpsuit and brought a series of adults (the subjectsof the experiment) into the room to meet the baby. Some of the adults weretold that the infant was a girl named Mary; others were told that the babywas a boy named Johnny. Most of the adults who thought the baby was a girlgave her the doll to play with. Most of those who believed the baby was aboy gave him the football. The Baby X study sparked a lot of heateddiscussion about gender stereotyping and the need for gender-neutral toys.Nevertheless, when Dr. Katz repeated the experiment 10 years later, she gotthe same results. What's more, despite great efforts toward gender equalityin recent years, if you walk into a typical American preschool, it won't behard to guess which children will be brushing Barbie's hair and which willbe crashing toy trucks.

Nature and Nurture
Part of this preference seems to be genetic, a biological preference frombirth for certain types of toys. In other words, there's some truth to theold saying that "boys will be boys" and "girls will be girls." But it's nota cut-and-dried difference between the genders. While many boys will havean affinity for trucks and the like, they're also likely to enjoy — andbenefit from — playing with dolls.

Boy Toys Versus Girl Toys: Getting Past Stereotypes
Should you worry if your child desires or plays mostly with toys typicallyassociated with a certain gender? Probably not. But do encourage youryoungster to play with a variety of toys. The real issue is not the toysthemselves but the underlying skills they help young children master. Thefantasy play associated with dolls helps children become sophisticated inskills used in interpersonal relationships, especially nurturing andempathy. These are wonderful and useful skills, as are the mathematical andvisual-spatial skills learned from playing with toys like blocks and cars.

Fantasy Versus Reality: Best of Both Worlds
Another way in which children's play differs is whether it's based onreality (such as board games and sports) or fantasy (such as playing houseor pretending to travel through time and space). In general, firstborn andonly children seem to do more fantasizing, perhaps because they spend moretime alone. They're also more likely to have imaginary companions. Havingan active fantasy life also seems to help develop, or at least reflect,higher intellectual skills. When your child imagines that a golf ball is amagical talisman and decides what to do with it (save the princess? Fightthe dragon? Conjure ice-cream sundaes?), he is using fantasy to considerthe implications of choosing different options. Fantasies are also anexcellent way for a child to come to terms with things that challenge,frighten, or confuse him. For example, a 3-year-old who is upset by thenoise made by a big truck can master his fears by pretending that thewooden block he's holding in his hand is an even bigger and scarier truck.

Reality play, on the other hand, can help a child hone important socialskills. A board game gives a preschooler practice taking turns. Earlysports activities teach the basics of teamwork and shared responsibility.

Getting Involved
What can you do to help your child try new kinds of play? The simplestthing is to get involved. If you build a dollhouse (a cardboard box is justfine!) and start playing with it yourself, your son won't be able toresist. The same goes for your daughter when she watches you buildsomething with blocks. Or take an imaginary trip to the jungle with afavorite stuffed animal, then bring home a soccer ball and start kicking itaround the back yard. No matter what, don't miss an opportunity to playwith your child. It can be one of the best parts of being a parent.

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