As children age, their cognitive and physical abilities grow exponentially. They learn quickly and pick up on cues from others. This includes constructive play. In this article, we’ll cover what constructive play is, how it works, and how to encourage it.
What Is Constructive Play?
Constructive play is when children build or make something new. Typically, this is accomplished through toys, including building blocks, molding clay, and shapes. Psychologist Jean Piaget characterized this play type and clarified it must follow the functional play stage.
Naturally, constructive play piques your child's curiosity. As they build and create, they organically begin to ask questions and work to find the answer. Questions like "How tall can I make these blocks," "What happens if I put these two things together," and "Can I use these blocks to make a new shape" are typical examples of this mindset.
These questions are a crucial part of the learning process as they help kids learn how to problem solve and make connections between unrelated objects. As they age, the way kids use such skills will increase in complexity.
When Do Children Learn Constructive Play?
Children can begin learning constructive play as soon as they are able to grasp objects firmly and manipulate them. Typically, this happens around two years old but can occur sooner or later depending on your child's development.
Within Mildred Parten’s six stages of play (unoccupied, solitary, onlooker, parallel, associative, and cooperative), constructive play typically falls into the realm of the fourth stage: parallel play. At this time in your child's life, they are beginning to watch how others interact with their surroundings and adapting their play style to accommodate these new ideas.
Constructive play guides children to observe others, take notes, and self-evaluate their own actions. As your child grows, they don’t outgrow constructive play. In fact, they begin to process information much faster and can think more critically about how they interact with their surroundings, most notably their toys. Ideas become more complex as kids make connections between unrelated objects.
Why Is Constructive Play So Important?
Constructive play helps connect, encourage, and solidify several different skill sets, including language, mathematics, and social-emotional development. These skills can and should be highly encouraged by the supervising adults.
Encourages Language Development
Constructive play helps develop new language skills and vocabulary through social interactions. The vocabulary learned is immediately used within the appropriate setting and in the correct context. When playing in a group, children will eagerly learn from each other through observation, listening, and cooperation.
Caregivers can encourage the connections to language and constructive play by noting kids’ newly acquired words and skills. Bringing these words up later in a natural fashion helps with recall. Adults can also ask gently probing questions like, “Why do you think the tower fell down?” or “How does the red paint affect the white pain?”
Such practices can link cause and effect and help children see the direct outcome resulting from constructive play activities.
Forms the Basis of Mathematical Skills
Children subconsciously learn about quantity, measurement, weight, height, and size when using constructive play. They are also learning how to use and understand spatial relationships with words such as “below,” “above,” “beside,” and “on top.”
Not only does constructive play teach about intangible concepts, but it also helps solidify children’s understanding of shapes, sorting, matching, and patterns as they explore the building blocks or clay in their possession.
Adults can encourage making the connection between constructive play and mathematics by asking questions, including what shapes fit together, which block weighs more, and how a block’s weight may affect their building. Adults can also help sort the different shapes in whatever assortment the children prefer if the children need the help.
Encourages Cognitive Development
Through the previous skills, cognitive development tends to happen organically. Constructive play in a group setting sparks group play, cooperation, and social-emotional interaction. It requires children to learn from each other through observation, brainstorming, and assisting.
Constructive play also builds fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and basic engineering skills. These skills are enhanced through simple practice. Because of this, children typically aren’t even aware that they are honing skills necessary for physical and mental development. It also helps encourage kids to move into the next type of play: fantasy play.
Constructive Play in Play Stages
Typically, constructive play begins to occur in the parallel stage of play. In parallel play, kids play independently in a group setting. While seemingly focused on their own station, they are actually casually observing peers; they are learning new ideas and deciding how to implement them in their own work.
Constructive play is perfect for this stage of play. Children are physically creating something new that others can easily watch and be inspired by, especially if the toys are the same across the board.
Eventually, this stage of play will evolve into associative play and then cooperative play. Through these stages, constructive play continues to play a critical part in children’s development.
In general, associative play starts around two to four years of age (however, all children are unique).
In associative play, kids will interact with each other directly, unlike in parallel play. While they play together, they are unlikely to be conversing. For example, they could work together to make a wooden block house but would most likely not discuss plans or next steps in the construction process.
While parallel and associative play are often associated with early childhood, that isn’t strictly the case. School-aged children to teens (and even adults!) can find joy in quietly sitting in a friend’s presence, doing a task side by side.
Introducing Imaginative Play
Constructive play also makes the transition into fantasy play. As kids become more confident in their abilities to build what they set their minds to, they will begin to construct objects used for playing pretend. This may include paper swords to play as knights or warriors, giant robots that storm a pretend castle, or magic wands to play wizards.
There are several ways for caregivers to encourage constructive play.
Give the children time to work and play as they see fit. Time constraints are detrimental to the development of play.
The more time kids have to invent and create, the more dramatic and constructive their play becomes. Their ideas become more mature and complex. You may be surprised what children can whip up when they are given free rein for long enough!
When your children are playing, emphasize the construction process rather than the final product. By highlighting the process, we prompt our kids to be more creative. Nurturing these qualities can contribute to a growth mindset.
Ultimately, this will help kids become more self-motivated to continue learning. In this same vein, we should avoid giving children templates to follow, which might limit their creative growth.
To ensure diversity of play, give the kids several opportunities to create. Provide a variety of materials to play with. In this article, we have talked a lot about building blocks and clay.
However, there are several other objects that children can play with, including sand, art materials (e.g., paint, chalk, paper), water, sticks and stones, and woodworking activities. Not only does this give kids more opportunities to create, but it also gives them more freedom to combine materials and imagine something brand new.
Even though templates might not be ideal, providing a general theme can be a lovely start to a construction project. Possible themes include fairy tales, upcoming holidays, or specific stories.
You can even encourage the children to come up with their own theme for the group or class to build upon. Themes also motivate children to think about the relationships between what they are building, what their friends are building, and the story they are trying to tell.
In the midst of the kids’ constructive play, encourage them to elaborate on their thought processes. Ask them how they came up with their ideas and how they plan to construct them. This helps form complex problem-solving skills as they explain their process.
Another great idea to further children’s creativity is to take pictures of the finished works and put them on display for everyone to see. This provides an indirect form of parallel play where kids can study and implement different ideas that they see in others’ designs. It also inspires kids to create something bigger and better the next time around.
Constructive Childhood Development
Constructive play is a crucial part of a child’s development. As they grow, they naturally form more mature and complex thought processes. Constructive play builds upon that growth by encouraging them to use their imagination and bring their ideas to life.
Usually, constructive play begins around age two and continues to progress and increases in complexity as they age. It also forms basic skills, including fine motor skills, basic engineering, vocabulary, mathematical concepts, and social interaction.
Each of these tends to happen subconsciously as children practice and play, but adults can encourage them by getting involved in the process. Ask your children how they came up with their idea and how they plan to construct it.
Continue to motivate constructive play as much as possible to keep developing your child’s skills. Time is the most important factor when participating in constructive play.
The Key to Collaboration
The longer a child can use their imagination to create what they want, the more they build confidence in what they create, and it helps to self-motivate them to keep coming up with more complex ideas in the future. You can also help this process by giving your child a theme to work with, as it will help focus their thoughts while avoiding any creative limitations.
At Blue Squirrel, we’re here to build better play for kids (and the kids at heart). Check out our growing resources to guide modern kids into adventurers, thinkers, and memory-builders.
Constructive Play | National Association for the Education of Young Children
Constructive Play in Early Learning Environments – Alka Burman | CMAS
The power of play – Part 3: Types of play | MSU Extension
The Qualities Criteria of Constructive Play and the Teacher’s Role | The Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology
The power of play – Part 1: Stages of play - Early Childhood Development | MSU Extension
Jean Piaget: Life and Theory of Cognitive Development | Verywell Mind
What Is Associative Play? Examples, Age, Benefits, and More | Healthline