“When we make Play the foundation of learning, we teach the Whole child”- Vince
What is Play?
Many activities that children engage in have a goal or purpose. Examples of it include eating,
cleaning, coloring a picture and other routine activities or ‘work.’ Outside of these activities,
children engage in tasks that have no goals per se and are done for their own sake rather than
their outcome. This is what is called Play. Play is not merely a means for filling up free time.
Play plays a very important role in a child’s emotional, physical, social and cognitive
development. Children use their senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch) to interact
with their environment and that helps them explore and learn how the world around them
The basic form of play in which infants engage is called functional play. It involves repetitive
acts of throwing, tapping or stacking. As per developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, these
behaviors can be understood as experiments done by scientists. Throwing objects and
observing it fall helps a child learn that unsupported objects hit the ground, always (or
Newton’s laws of universal gravitation, if you will). As this form of play extensively involves
the sensory system, Jean Piaget classifies it as Sensorimotor play.
The next stage of play involves the use of objects as symbols. It is called symbolic or pretend
play. For instance, a child would pick up a TV remote, place it on his ears and say ‘hello’,
pretending to use it as a mobile phone. This kind of play helps a child to achieve the ability to
imagine, remember, understand and then replicate objects that are in their mind using
alternate objects that may be available to them at the moment. Eventually, play activities
become more sophisticated to involve complex situations and roles; an example could be
setting up an elaborate classroom and becoming a teacher. This form of play helps the child
to create mental images of different scenarios for future use.
Playing by the Rules
The third stage of play is rule-based play. Children engaging in this kind of play are required
to follow predetermined rules. This type of play involves competition, turn-taking, gauging
other person's mental states to reach the desired outcome i.e. to win the game. Examples of
this include chess, snake, and ladders, and hide and seek. This play gives an opportunity for the
child to form and test assumptions in a concrete, logical way.
Play in Neurotypicals v/s Play in ASD
The development of play in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder differs greatly from the
play a typical child engages in. Most children on the spectrum engage in functional play only.
Due to difficulties in attention span, perspective-taking and understanding rules, children on
the spectrum show difficulties in engaging in symbolic and rule-based play. As these play
activities help in cognitive and social development, children on the spectrum need some
exposure to these play activities.
Theory of Mind
Theory of mind is an important cognitive process that distinguishes the ability of a child to
engage in social and rule-based play. Theory of mind is the ability to understand that people
have thoughts and feelings different from you. It also involves attributing different
mental states to people based on the information gathered through multiple cues including
nonverbal cues and paralanguage. While engaging in play activities, understanding abstract
concepts, planning and taking other person’s perspective into consideration are important.
Conversely, engaging in play also helps in the development of these cognitive processes, leading
to development of the theory of mind.
Children on the spectrum have deficits in theory of mind. This, in turn, can explain the
difficulties they face in understanding social situations. However, interventions in the form of
play activities exist to help a child develop a theory of mind. In our next article, we will discuss
the concept of theory of mind in detail and some fun game activities to help our children
learn to mind read!