001. LETTER FROM THE EDITOR

The Benefit of play for kids of all ages

Written by Lora Appleton

It is an adult’s job to work and a child’s job to play. Play engages children’s creativity while simultaneously developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. It is a key element of development that must be nurtured as soon as infants begin to engage and interact with the world around them. Therefore, as designers, makers, educators, and parents we should think about infusing design and play into every environment, as well as objects in the home, not just those meant exclusively for children. By incorporating artwork, sculpture, collectible objects, and more, we ensure that children begin to see elements of design around them, and beautiful and well-designed pieces help stimulate awareness, fun, and age-appropriate creative conversations.

 B. Toy's Zany Zoo. Photo via mybtoys.com.

B. Toy's Zany Zoo. Photo via mybtoys.com.

A child’s brain develops in distinct phases. Infants, aged four to six months, begin to look at, grasp, and bring objects to their mouths. New parents worry about what those objects should be: Are they nontoxic, made of healthy materials, curved for easy hand-to-mouth exploration? Do they make sound to stimulate auditory learning? Do they encourage the development of hand-eye coordination? And so on. I’ve always loved B. Toys’ products for these qualities. They are learning based and designed with a mix of healthy, ecologically-friendly materials, and they engage children through their form and function. It is important to stimulate babies visually and to set a foundation for future creative and imaginative play. I believe bold wallpaper, oversize murals, or a gorgeous mobile can be highly beneficial elements. Mobiles by HABA are sweet and engaging; if you are more of a minimalist, try a simple, artistic Flensted mobile. I also think it’s important to bring in all kinds of personal life objects: artwork from friends and family or fun and evocative items you grab at flea markets can combine to make a child’s space personal and interactive.

At twelve months, children are fascinated with boxes, the simplicity of which allows for constant experimentation and the earliest forms of imaginative play. No matter how expensive a toy is, all children give excited attention to the simplest item: the package it came in! A box is a vessel that can be filled, dumped, turned over, and banged on, providing unlimited excitement. I can recall the intricate playhouses my son and I would construct out of delivery boxes; some included details such as shingles, doors with handles, and even hanging lighting fixtures!

 Flensted's Futura Nature Mobile. Photo via flensted-mobiles.com

Flensted's Futura Nature Mobile. Photo via flensted-mobiles.com


At eighteen to twenty-four months, more symbolic play begins and a basic block can become a vehicle or a phone. It is at this time that objects with design value can be incorporated into the home. Items such as play cubes, dollhouses, toy kitchens, cash registers, cell phones, and so on encourage solo play. Purposeful as well as parallel play, in which children play alongside one another, begins, as children work together to solve simple problems. The brain develops exponentially during the first two years of life, and the success or failure of this development is directly impacted by the child’s environment, further proving how essential the material world is for healthy growth and early education. The key here is to choose simple yet functional items that encourage fun exploration. It is great to add in play objects that have mixed function, and a wonderful current example is the new Ferm Living Miniature Funkis House. This mixed-function piece gives children the freedom to experiment creatively and develop their own unique style of play. Kudos to a design company that is actively engaging children in play through decor.

Once the early stages of development pass, the preoperational stage (ages two to seven years) starts. During this period, children begin to engage in make-believe games marked by the use of objects for purposes other than their intended function. As a designer, I am always thinking about creating items that can support mixed use. How can I encourage use rather than direct it? This is also a great stage to bring all types of recycled items and art supplies into the child’s “work” room. Simple things like Popsicle sticks, mason jars for storing treasured objects, colored tape, wooden spoons, felt balls, and pots and pans can all encourage creative play.

 Ferm Living's Miniature Funkis House. Photo via fermliving.com

Ferm Living's Miniature Funkis House. Photo via fermliving.com

Between the ages of four and seven years, when their thinking is still dominated by intuition rather than logic, children are interested in games characterized by rules, structure, and social interaction. Card games, board games, and other games with multiple players all support growth during this phase. For children at this stage of development, I love classic games such as Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders. Additionally, at this age children begin to examine the world around them more thoroughly. They begin to recognize differences between materials, question where things originate, and wonder how materials make up the world. Having beautifully designed items throughout the home for children to interact with assists in this “life exploration.”  


As children move through the concrete operational stage (ages seven to eleven years), during which categorizing activities and the earliest logical thought processes occur, the types of rules governing play and the reasons for following them change quite a bit. At first, rules are centered on the sensorimotor aspects of play, and are well structured and repetitive. Gradually, children become more focused on the social aspects of play, and begin emphasizing connection with their social group. By the fourth, or formal operations, stage (ages twelve and older), a mature ability to reason emerges and competitive games and games with codes and rules reign.

As we look into each of these different stages of development, we realize it is imperative to bring play into all aspects of our children’s lives. What children are exposed to influences their growth and their ideas about the world. This affords grown-ups a wonderful opportunity to engage in discussions about the objects and environments children encounter, while encouraging unexpected ways of playing in their unique world. Play, it seems, enriches our lives at all ages, benefiting both the child who engages in it and the adult who supports it.