An important aspect of childhood is playtime; research has shown that constructive play is an essential developmental process for many children.

Studies have shown that about 50% of play-related activities during early childhood ages involve constructive play.

In a paper on psychological methods of studying play, constructive play is defined as a form of play that uses various materials to build structures, patterns or other kinds of systems. Such building materials could include popular toys such as Play-Doh, Lego or Lincoln Logs. 

While play in general is important to child development, constructive play helps refine certain developmental skills over time. To be specific, it hones skills like creativity, problem solving and spatial ability, which is the ability to mentally generate, rotate and transform visual images. 

A study conducted by a team of Dutch researchers led by Meike Oostermeijer in 2014 explored the correlation between constructive play and spatial ability in children. The research team had 128 Dutch 6th graders take a timed mathematical word problem test. Beforehand, the children also had to take a survey indicating the amount of interaction they had with constructive play activities. The results showed that there was a statistically significant difference in the scores of the 6th-graders who were exposed to constructive play compared to the scores of those who were not. 

In addition to the development of intellectual skills, constructive play can also be used as a potential indicator for the existence of mental disorders in early childhood. 

“The absence of the emergence of constructive play in early childhood also becomes a diagnostic red flag to look for underlying issues such as developmental disorders,” said Dr. Kenneth J. Fischer MD, a board certified adult, child and adolescent psychiatrist from Fargo, North Dakota. “Variations on the ability and willingness of more neurotypical children to engage in constructive play becomes helpful when assessing children with anxiety disorders, mood disorders and disorders of adjustment to particularly challenging life circumstances.”

One example of constructive play being used as an indicator of mental disorder was examined in a study conducted in 2005. The researchers running the experiment studied 17 kindergarten to first-grade children aged 5 to 6. These children had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, a developmental disorder that causes lack in normal social and communicative behavior.

Each participant’s play patterns were measured for 10-minute sessions. The results showed that 25% of the time, these children engaged in functional play activities, which involve repetitive movements and playing with an object based on function. In contrast, 12% of the time, they engaged in constructive play. The participants also rarely engaged in interactions with peers for the extent of the study. Based on previous research, typically developed children in the kindergarten age are more engaged in constructive, dramatic (role playing) and group play activities, and less engaged in solitary functional play behaviors. Such patterns are more associated with the preschool age. In fact, the mean mental age of the participants of the study was 4.86 years, while their actual, mean chronological age was 6.21 years. In other words, children with autism, according to the study, are unable to engage in play activities appropriate for their age. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic, children are being impacted by social, emotional and mental stress. CDC data has shown that emergency room visits related to mental health issues in children aged 5-11 has increased 24% from March to October, compared to the previous year. 

To combat these issues, the CDC also released recommendations to give children various ways to enrich their at-home learning experience, many of which are forms of constructive play. Some fun activities include puzzles, building forts from sheets, or stacking blocks to practice counting.

Nevertheless, with schools closed, children are being shut out from opportunities to develop as social beings.

“Play and the environment (usually school) are essential to a child’s well being,” Dr. Fischer said. “The stakes in getting children back to safe and appropriate developmental environments couldn’t be higher.”

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