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Play and Cognitive Development: Infant and Junior Primary School Children

Play Benefits

27 Oct 2020

Science informing the design of playgrounds

At adventure+ the science of childhood cognitive development informs the design of our innovative playgrounds and playground equipment. A key influence over the work that we do is pioneering children’s psychologist Jean Piaget, who famously wrote “play is the work of childhood”.

At adventure+ we take play seriously, so Piaget’s recognition that plays as a necessary part of childhood development is important to us. Piaget identified four stages of childhood cognitive development, with an emphasis on skill and knowledge acquisition.

To introduce Piaget’s work, we will explore the first two stages of childhood development that relate to infant and early primary school children. But first, what do we mean by play?

Play is the answer to how anything new comes about

Jean Piaget

Defining Play in Childhood

While “play” for adults often means something recreational or frivolous, for children “play” is essential part of their daily social, physical, and cognitive well-being and development.

Play refers to activities performed for self-amusement, joy, and psychomotor rewards, such as swinging on monkey bars, building sandcastles, and climbing trees.

Children explore shapes, colours, textures, cause and effect, themselves and the world around them, through the experience of play. Play allows children to create fantasy scenarios, socialise with other children, and learn concepts such as fairness, teamwork, and caring for others.

Play can be unstructured and spontaneous, or structured and planned, however, the style and focus of play differ between different age groups and the different stages of development.

Sensorimotor Stage – Birth to 2 yrs Old

The sensorimotor stage is defined as the first stage of cognitive development, occurring from birth to around two years old. The sensorimotor stage tests and challenges the senses and motor abilities and is designed to help a child arrive at a basic understanding of the size and shape of their surroundings.

An enormous amount of growth and development occurs between birth and the age of two, as an infant gains in awareness and physical capabilities. In this stage, play centres around sensory experiences, providing an important base for later development and skill acquisition.

When it comes to playgrounds, children in the sensorimotor stage represent our littlest visitors. Simple, low to the ground playgrounds featuring counting and colour matching activities, interactive panels, appealing shapes, textures, and natural play materials such as sand, all encourage sensory play. Simple slides, block stairs, and crawl-friendly spaces further stimulate a child’s vestibular sensory system, which contributes to their sense of balance and spatial awareness.

Our Enfield Play Unit is one such low-to-the-ground playground appropriate for infants and small children, with features such as an interactive noughts and crosses panel, crawl-friendly tunnel, interactive clock, and many colours and textures that make it popular in early learning settings.

Preoperational Stage – 2 to 7 yrs Old

Lasting from around ages two to seven, the preoperational stage is characterised by language acquisition, simple egocentrism, animism (seeing the world as alive), and the acquisition and use of basic symbols.

Imaginative play such as dolls and figurines, and role-playing games such as pretending to be an animal or superhero, are typical of this period. Another common feature is parallel play, wherein children play alongside one another rather than with each other.

Limited concentration and organisation skills develop, alongside self-expression with rudimentary symbols, such as through language, objects, and art.

Playgrounds geared toward the preoperational stage emphasises the use of imagination through role-play scenarios, along with learning activities and playground features that require a higher level of physical and cognitive capabilities than in the sensorimotor stage.

Our Seafarer Play Unit is one such playground configured to resemble a boat attached to a jetty and features a slide, tunnel, deck, and climbing apparatus in bold colour components that appeal to a child’s imagination.

Middle and Senior Primary School Children

Read our Play and Cognitive Development: Senior Primary School Children blog where we discuss children aged seven and above, and the concrete operational and formal stages of play.

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