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Children’s “Critical Period” of Learning and Stages of Cognitive Play


>> Expert Advice from our ECE Expert: Kim Davies <<

There are many types of play that use hands-on tools and manipulatives including sand play, water play, block play, music, drama, dance and creative arts that use open-ended materials. It is through the repetition of quality interactions and experiences in children’s early years that these advanced brain patterns evolve. For the duration of these “sensitive” stages of brain development, children go through two main stages of Cognitive Play.

The first is called Functional Play. This is when toddlers and young preschools learn through repetitive, open-ended free-play (with no determined outcome). During this developmental stage, they repeatedly practice their mental schemes by interacting with objects, people and language in their environment. It may appear that they have a limited attention span and may wander from toy to toy, but they are learning as they attempt to manipulate shapes, fill buckets, empty baskets and knock items over. These toddlers are rapidly developing all of their skills as they practice using their bodies in motion. Meanwhile, they are developing language, social and emotional skills as they interact with other children and adults as they play.

The second stage of Cognitive Play is divided into three sub-categories that include Constructive, Dramatic and Games with Rules. Mostly toddlers and preschool age children engage in the symbolic actions of Constructive Play where they use materials and objects to make other things (the cone-shaped pylon becomes and ice cream cone or hat). This stage of play allows children to create and construct their own representation of objects in the real world.

Mature toddlers, preschool and young school-age children engage in Dramatic Play that is based on imaginary role-play with and without props. You can see this type of play in action as children begin to use the toys around them to create imaginary play scenes. For instance, the plastic food set is used to host a pretend picnic with the bears and puppets on a blanket. You will see the children pretend to feed the toys and then let you know when they are “full”.

The third category of Constructive Play is Games with Rules. This stage is typically entered when school-age children begin to engage in complex, cooperative games that have pre-set rules for play, such as soccer, tag or board games. This stage of play requires open communication, team work and the ability to self-regulate one’s emotions while following the rules.

Learning through play during children’s critical period of growth and brain development is of most importance and timing is everything. Play is vital to all children’s learning as it provides them with opportunities to express their thoughts and feelings, to meet and solve meaningful and real problems, to foster flexible and divergent thinking, and to develop social, language and literacy skills and concepts.


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Nikki is the owner/director of Seasons Family Centre. She completed a diploma in photography at Fanshawe College, followed by a degree in psychology at the University of Western Ontario. Shortly after she finished a post-graduate diploma at the Toronto Art Therapy Institute. She is a Registered Canadian Art Therapist. Over the next few years she extended her education through various courses in psychology, counselling and play therapy at George Brown College, Hincks Delcrest and Cross Country Education. For the past several years Nikki has been running art programs all across the city of Toronto at various schools, community centres, libraries and private homes. She also runs play therapy groups at Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Offices as well as private art therapy sessions. Nikki has taken several courses in baking and cake decorating through the Wilton certification program.

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