Three pro­fes­sors at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity say there is much more to children’s play than dolls and dump trucks, and they have won a four-​​year $1.6 mil­lion grant from the U.S. Depart­ment of Education’s Insti­tute of Edu­ca­tion Sci­ences to pursue that assertion.

The trio — Karin Lifter, Emanuel Mason, and Takuya Minami of the Depart­ment of Coun­seling and Applied Edu­ca­tional Psy­chology in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences — say their research shows that the way chil­dren play can pro­vide crit­ical insight into their dis­tinc­tive methods of learning, which can lead to the devel­op­ment of more effec­tive instruc­tional strategies.

We think that play is a sixth domain that should be used to round out the tra­di­tional five assess­ment domains spec­i­fied in fed­eral law for serving chil­dren with delays and dis­abil­i­ties,” says Lifter, refer­ring to the domains of cog­ni­tive devel­op­ment, phys­ical devel­op­ment, com­mu­ni­ca­tion devel­op­ment, social or emo­tional devel­op­ment and adap­tive development.

The grant will sup­port con­tinued work on a Devel­op­mental Play Assess­ment, orig­i­nally con­structed by Lifter, to create a tool for edu­ca­tors and prac­ti­tioners to assess children’s play skills within the con­text of deter­mining their broader development.

Delays and lim­i­ta­tions in play often cor­re­spond with lags in other learning behavior, says Lifter. For example, the ability of a young child to create rela­tion­ships between toys in a mean­ingful way, such as reassem­bling a simple puzzle, directly cor­re­sponds to tran­si­tions in lan­guage, such as the emer­gence of first words.

As part of the study, researchers will observe approx­i­mately 820 chil­dren (with and without iden­ti­fied devel­op­mental delays) ranging in age from 8 months to 60 months playing with groups of toys in 30-​​minute ses­sions that will be recorded and ana­lyzed. Researchers and prac­ti­tioners par­tic­i­pating in the project will place four groups of toys in front of each child to observe, record and code the play behaviors.

The researchers will orga­nize the data into devel­op­mental sequences, and iden­tify delays, emerging skills and pat­terns of play. They will gen­erate a check­list for each child’s progress that will act as an instruc­tional guide for future play sessions.

This is not about teaching chil­dren how to play with toys,” says Lifter, “but rather using children’s play with toys to show us what chil­dren know and what they are thinking about in their development.”