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Playing is serious learningFree Access

Ask the experts By Lauren Vanderlist

Q: How can I support my child’s development through play?

A: Play and development go hand in hand. From the beginning, children are learning through play, first by connecting with parents and other caregivers and later with peers. As an occupational therapist, I typically assess fine and visual motor skills, strength, feeding, dressing, sensory processing and coordination. However, I also am concerned and interested in the progression of a child’s play skills because of the impact it can have on all other areas of growth. As the late, great Mr. Rogers said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play IS serious learning. Play really is the work of childhood.”

Play begins at birth. Unoccupied Play occurs when an infant is simply looking, listening and moving within their environment. This transitions as their motor skills and interests develop into Solitary Play, where they are content to play by themselves, often manipulating objects in their hands and bringing toys to their mouths. Later they begin to observe others during Onlooker Play, in preparation for more mature Parallel Play. As communication skills develop, both gestural and verbal, they begin to participate in more Associative Play with others, which then progresses to Cooperative Play.

In addition, there are several different kinds of play, each offering opportunities for growth and development. These include:

Constructive Play using different tools and materials (e.g. wooden blocks, boxes and various loose parts.)

Physical Play can happen inside or outside and is important for improving coordination, strength, body and safety awareness.

Expressive Play supports creativity using drawing, coloring, writing, creating music and dancing.

Competitive Play helps children develop an understanding of what is fair and how to follow rules and take turns.

Fantasy and Pretend Play uses and further develops children’s imaginations and helps build social skills and relationships while also challenging children to problem solve.

To support your child’s development through play, consider the following:

Allow time for unstructured play.

Provide open-ended toys.

Unplug from screen media.

Play together.

Remember, it’s OK to be bored.

The Family Center hosts Play Central, a drop-in setting for parents, grandparents and caregivers to play with their children while socializing in an indoor play setting. It’s offered 9 to 11 a.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, October to April. Visit for more information about this program and for more helpful tips from today’s author.

Vanderlist is an occupational therapist with more than nine years of experience working with children. She graduated from Washington University with a Master of Science degree in occupational therapy. She has practiced in a variety of settings and worked with children of all ages and diagnoses. She is also a Certified PLAY Project Consultant, providing specialized services to young children with autism and their families. Vanderlist currently provides home-based occupational therapy and PLAY Project services. She can be reached at (248) 629-0193 or Visit for more information. Vanderlist is a member of The Family Center’s Association of Professionals.

The Family Center is a nonprofit organization that provides resources and preventive education to empower families to successfully navigate life’s social, emotional and physical challenges. It is completely supported by community donations.

To learn more, visit, call (313) 447-1374 or email