we may see an older toddler extend her play by
making the sound “vroom vroom vroom” to mimic
the sound of the car racing down the ramp. Sym­
bolic play demonstrates how the child is develop­
ing a foundation of abstract thinking. This stage
lays the groundwork for more advanced cognitive
skills. The development of abstract thought and
problem solving is based in the sensorimotor and
preoperational stages of cognitive development.

These skills are needed to prepare children for
the twenty-​first century. Cognitive development
provides the foundation for all STEM learning.

most of their playtime playing alone or with a
responsive caregiver, but as children grow, they
become more aware of others. They begin to
observe the play and interactions of others. As
they begin to pay closer attention to those around
them, they move into parallel play. As children
grow and mature, their language, cognitive, and
motor skills increase, and they begin to move
toward cooperative play. Children approaching
their third birthday will use their developing
imaginations and social skills to play with others
in pretend and cooperative play.

Play is the business of childhood. Children learn
and grow through play. During play, young chil­
dren are engaging both their minds and bodies.

Children use small and large muscles as they move
and manipulate objects. Through play children
integrate emotions, solve problems, learn lan­
guage, and develop their imaginations. They learn
how to interact and communicate with others. It’s
important to remember that children’s play will
look different at different ages. For example, an
infant’s style of play looks different than toddler
play. Play is not something children automati­
cally know how to do, but rather it is an activity
that is learned through playful engagement with
others. Responsive caregivers join children in
their play experiences and encourage exploration
and enjoyment in play. Responsive caregivers
promote a child’s natural curiosity as they model
and scaffold play. They help foster relationships
with peers and promote development.

Play begins in infancy as babies and caregiv­
ers build early relationships. Babies imitate the
gestures and expressions of adults. Through play,
infants and toddlers develop confidence in their
ability to manipulate the world. They build cogni­
tive skills that support STEM learning, including
cause and effect, memory, and spatial awareness.

When observing infants and toddlers, caregivers
watch them learn through sensory exploration,
manipulation, and trial and error. Infants spend
Caregivers promote cognitive development
by planning intentional, developmentally appro­
priate activities. Cognitive thinking and play
experiences are important for early develop­
ment. Children spend most of their time in play
where they construct new learning and develop
critical thinking skills. When caregivers provide
a rich STEM environment, children can direct
and design their own play. In child-​directed
play, unless an activity is harmful or destructive,
children are allowed to play freely. Infants and
toddlers will repeat simple activities in order to

master new skills. For example, a child picks up
a sensory bottle and twists and shakes it to see
how the objects in it move and float (see Liquid
Sensory Bottles activity, page 108). Caregivers
watch and observe the child, providing support
and guidance in a developmentally appropriate
manner. They scaffold STEM learning by rein­
forcing new vocabulary and expanding language
and learning through inquiry. Asking open-​ended
questions provides opportunities to hold a child’s
attention, shows approval of the child’s choice of
play, and increases the child’s sense of self and
self-​esteem. I will share more on inquiry later in
the book. Child-​directed activities strengthen the
adult-​child relationship, reinforce learning, and
enhance the feeling that learning is fun.

Experienced caregivers are sensitive to play
responses of children. They understand that each
child has distinct preferences in the amount and
intensity of play. Caregivers develop an under­
standing of the cues infants and toddlers give
when they feel under-​or overstimulated. Care­
givers show care and respect to the child by modi­
fying the environment to meet the changing needs
and cues of each child. Responsive care­givers talk
to children about what they are doing and ask
open-​ended questions. Using words and gestures
helps children connect prior learning to new expe­
riences. Caregivers broaden children’s learning by
scaffolding STEM activities and introducing new
learning materials to the play experience. Novel
toys and materials are introduced, allowing chil­
dren to extend their play experiences. These con­
nections help children deepen and expand their
learning and understanding of the world.

Adults have their own playful styles, and
infants and toddlers quickly learn to identify the
different styles of their parents and caregivers.

It’s important for early childhood providers to
support parents in their role as their child’s first
teacher. Helping parents engage in play with their
children promotes positive relationships and
helps children reach developmental milestones.

Playful environments at home and in early care
settings provide a consistent message that learn­
ing is fun. It supports the home-​school connec­
tion, which is so important for children’s learning.

Children spend most of their time in play where
they construct new learning; therefore, play is
essential in high-​quality early care centers. Care­
givers can do the following to support STEM play
activities in young children:
Talk to the child as you play.

Model how to play and use animated

Ask inquiry questions and introduce STEM

Provide children space to play and explore
alone and with peers.

Scaffold the activity by modeling expanded
use of the play material(s).

Provide open-​ended materials in both inside
and outside environments.

Join the child on the floor as you engage in
playful activities.