The other day I noticed both Bears playing together in a way I hadn’t observed before. Little Bear had built a new Lego set, an air ambulance, and had somehow managed to convince his brother to play with him. Not only that but he had convinced him to include his new Lego set, a superhero ship with Ant Man in it, and the two of them were caught up in some sort of imaginary world that involved Lego men living in an Egyptian sarcophagus, daring rescues and the occasional mention of a ninja. The game moved around the house, obviously, because helicopters and spaceships do fly and baddies will insist upon moving their lairs.
It felt noteworthy for a couple of reasons. Big Bear has hitherto been very cautious about his possessions around Little Bear, generally keeping new or precious things safely stowed in his bedroom with its securely lockable door. There are now days when he leaves the door open (a MUCH bigger deal than you would imagine and one we are pretending not to have noticed for fear he will shut it again) and days when he is more relaxed about his stuff. The fact that he had just built something new and was willing to play with it in the same game as Little Bear really showed how far the Bears have come in terms of trust and respect for one another.
I wondered why they hadn’t played similar games before with Little Bear’s toys (he’s only too happy to share with his brother) but realised it was because until very recently, this year anyway, Little Bear couldn’t have played those games. He wouldn’t have been able to follow the storyline or formulate appropriate dialogue to be able to join in, however much he might have wanted to. The leaps he has made (and continues to make) with his language development have unlocked a whole new world for him in terms of imaginary play. Not only that, but his ability to concentrate and to engage in more complex games has really developed too.
It has got me reflecting about play in general and the changes we have seen over the nearly three years Little Bear has been with us. I’m going to talk about play in developmental stages. There are various ways play development can be categorised but I’m thinking mainly about symbolic play/ imaginative play rather than social play. There are several different terms for each of the stages that can be found in literature on the subject but this is the version I personally find the most useful.
This is the first stage of play to develop (in typical development) when infants pick things up, drop them, chew on them, throw them, bang them together. Children are exploring tastes, textures, weights, sounds, wetness/dryness etc. They tend to be fascinated by anything and everything, not necessarily things you traditionally consider to be toys. It’s their first attempts at engaging with the world around them and they want to experience everything.
I suspect that many children who have adverse starts in life don’t have enough experience at this stage. If you spend too long in a cot or pushchair or highchair without any stimuli, you won’t be able to explore the world around you in the way you should. Being neglected at this stage robs a child of the experience they need to assimilate their senses. It is hard to learn to differentiate between hard/soft, wet/dry, hot/cold, rough/gentle if you don’t have any experience of feeling/touching things. I suspect that many sensory integration needs have their root in neglect at this stage.
When we met Little Bear, aged 3 and a half, much of his free play happened at this level. We spent a lot of time splashing in water and digging in sand. I also spent a lot of time telling him not to throw things or touch things that I would have expected him to know not to touch. There is the time he tried to lick a snake, the time he played in the toilet water and the time he smashed all the hens’ newly laid eggs. I genuinely believe Little Bear was still trying to assimilate all the sensory information he was getting from his environment and can only assume he hadn’t had enough time exploring (safely) when he was younger.
I had to make conscious efforts to offer him plenty of opportunities to engage in tactile sensory activities whilst teaching him some boundaries to keep him safe.
Water, the sand pit, kinetic sand, play doh, baking, not concerning ourselves with cutlery and turning a blind eye to him laying down prostrate and ‘swimming’ in gravel were the key, alongside exposing Little Bear to a wide range of ‘normal’ play experiences.
Pretend play with real objects/ oneself
The next stage of play is when children begin to show an understanding of what everyday objects are used for e.g. they might pretend to drink from an empty cup or babble into a pretend phone.
The thing about children who have been neglected is that their development is pretty patchy and though Little Bear had gaps at the exploratory stage, he did know what everyday objects were for and could pretend in this way already. He was certainly partial to a phone, even though his language skills wouldn’t allow him to have much of a conversation.
Large doll play
It isn’t usually long before children begin to relate everyday objects to each other and to their other toys. This is when they start to ‘feed’ their teddies or get them dressed.
We are pretty partial to a teddies tea party in our house and I can remember Little Bear being a bit bewildered the first time we got plates and food out for his cuddly animals. He soon picked up the idea though, often dolling out real biscuits for the animals and taking the opportunity to have some himself.
I found this stage useful for modelling behaviours and exploring some of Little Bear’s behaviours in a less direct way. Sometimes I would make the animals do things he had done or that we were finding tricky and it was interesting to observe how he dealt with them (he often took the role of parent). We also did it in a way that took the heat off Little Bear. Sometimes it was his rabbit who had been shouting or throwing things or saying rude words and we would ask Little Bear to have a word with them and teach them how to be sensible. He loved this responsibility and getting the rabbit to behave often mysteriously led to improvements in Little Bear’s own behaviour.
I’m not sure whether the last paragraph is more about developing play or exploiting the stages of play but still. Occasionally it worked the other way and Little Bear would express a fear or a worry through the voice of his animals, which was useful too.
Sequences of pretend play
Over time children begin to put several bits of play together so they might play with their toy kitchen and act out making dinner, feeding it to their doll then washing up.
I would say we were working at this stage alongside the previous one and exploratory play when we first met Little Bear and for the first months afterwards. That is the thing with child development; it is often not neat and linear, but skills overlap and appear at different rates. I think that children who have had difficult starts are more likely to have a muddled developmental profile and I can honestly say we could go from working at a 6-12 month level in the morning to approx. a 3 year level in the afternoon then back to an 18 month level again. It was hard to keep up with but imperative to match Little Bear’s level as best we could. There is no point trying to work to chronological levels when your child needs something much different. Little Bear would not have been able to reach the places he has reached had we not filled in the gaps.
The main sequences of play we engaged in a lot involved Little Bear pretending to be a superhero. We did a lot of dressing up, building dens and pretending we were in peril. He seemed to love it and it was great for extending his world knowledge and vocabulary.
Small World Play
At this stage children transfer their play skills into miniature representatives of the types of games they have already been playing. They might start playing with a farm or Duplo or Playmobil and doing some basic pretending.
I know we weren’t ready to play at this level when Little Bear first arrived. I distinctly remember trying to introduce him to Duplo but he lost his temper within the first nanosecond because he couldn’t get the man to sit in the bus as he wanted. You would certainly expect a typically developing three year old to be able to play at this level but it would take months of exploratory play, building resilience and bigger, more physical play for us to be ready to try again.
I think it has been the development of Little Bear’s attention span and his resilience to persevere through knockbacks and failed attempts that has allowed him to engage in small world play and crucially, enjoy it. I find it uniquely pleasing to observe.
Little Bear has always had a good imagination, that was clear from day 1, but it is only at some point in this past year (he’s 6 now) that everything has come together to allow him to explore it in his play. Play stages and language development are very much aligned so it shouldn’t really be a surprise that it is the point at which he has gained linguistic competence that he has also developed complex play abilities.
Play develops from here on in, becoming more complex, with longer, more detailed scenarios panning out. The Lego game that I observed the boys playing at the start of this post epitomised the progress Little Bear has made – playing a small world game, with tiny fiddly pieces that require a heap of resilience, making up an imagined scenario, adding appropriate dialogue and crucially negotiating and listening to his brother so that they could both be in the same imagined place, at the same time, contributing to the same scenario. It is standard kid stuff on face value but it is so complex and requires so many pre-requisite skills that it really is a feat of development.
I should really give Lego its own special mention before I finish because we love Lego in our house and also because it alone is a good indicator of how Little Bear is doing.
Big Bear had a premature love for Lego, getting into it from age 2.5 and loving it ever since. Given Little Bear’s disordered/ delayed development he wasn’t going to get into it anywhere near as young. I think he was about 5 when he could first start to tolerate building a simple model with a high level of adult support. I remember worrying because he really struggled to scan the tray to find pieces he needed let alone being able to follow the instructions. As with everything, we have practised and persevered and Little Bear has developed his skills quickly (once he overcame the initially difficulty). This week he chose to spend his holiday money on a sizeable Lego model of a dragon. It has an 8-14 age recommendation and he has done brilliantly, followed the instructions well and built the majority of it himself with just a little adult support.
What are my conclusions? Well, Little Bear is something of a legend but that is often my conclusion. Play has played a crucial role in his development and is very much intertwined with language development. Play has to happen in developmental order. You can’t skip bits willy-nilly; whichever stage a child is at, that is where you need to meet them. Development doesn’t happen overnight; stages take as long as they take. Developmental delay is never hopeless. Progress can and does happen and we should be aspirational for our children, no matter their start in life.