What do all these games have in common?
They are games with rules.
Four types of play
Child development and learning are intricately connected to play, a concept that has been deeply studied by many psychologists. One of the most influential theorists in this field is Sara Smilansky, who identified four distinct types of play: functional, constructive, games with rules, and sociodramatic.
Functional play, the most basic of the four types, is about what you can do with a material. What are its properties? How does it move? Here is a rattle. What happens if I bite it? What happens if I shake it? Observe a six-month-old at play and this is what you will see. Functional play involves simple, repetitive activities that develop motor skills, like rolling a ball.
Constructive play comes next. Your child no longer asks ‘what does it do’ but rather ‘what can I do with it?’. This is the time of construction materials, of blocks. Here is some Lego. What can I turn it into?
Games with rules represent a shift from these forms of play, introducing structure and pre-determined rules to children's activities. The rules can be made up. This is my wooden railway. The trains can only go this way round the track. You’re not allowed to go backwards.
Finally, we reach sociodramatic play, where children begin to explore and understand social roles.
Understanding 'Games with Rules'
'Games with rules' are exactly as they sound - they're games defined by a set of rules that dictate how they should be played. These could be traditional games like 'Simon Says', 'Tag', or 'Hide and Seek', or board games like ‘Ludo’ or 'Snakes and Ladders'.
Play is rehearsal for life.
And what is adult life if not a series of rules? You must drive your car this way. At work your job is completed that way.
So this kind of play gives our children the discipline and focus to operate within a rules-based system. They come to understand that there are consequences for acting outside the rules. You lose the game.
Games with rules aren’t just about staying out of trouble as an adult - they also challenge us to problem solve, think logically and strategise. They make demands on our memories and social skills.
We learn to take turns, negotiate rules and even look into the minds of others in order to predict their next move. We learn to empathise.
And we learn to lose - and win - with good grace.
How Games with Rules Lead to Sociodramatic Play
As children master games with rules, they're preparing for the final stage in Smilansky's play progression - sociodramatic play. Here, children engage in role-play and pretend scenarios, often emulating real-life situations. They must understand and abide by the 'rules' of the roles they adopt, whether they're playing a teacher, a doctor, or a superhero.
Games with rules enable children to access sociodramatic play - the highest form of play.
And they help get ready for life.