11 Important Types of Play for Children
Play is an indispensable part of childhood. Children don’t just enjoy play — they need play to further their development. Playtime offers many benefits to kids, including physical, social, emotional, and cognitive benefits. The term “play” is extremely broad. There are many different types of play, all of which can help further children’s development in specific ways.
Let’s look at 11 categories of play, some of which are defined by the level of independence or socialization involved. Other categories denote the types of activities children are engaged in. Each type of play for kids has an important place in childhood.
Parten’s Social Stages of Play
We can classify certain play types by age, or more accurately, by developmental stage. In 1932, sociologist Mildred Parten observed young children playing and determined that the way children play says a lot about the stage of their social development. Parten also noticed that children would engage in their current stage along with all the previous stages during playtime. Parten’s descriptions of the stages of social play are still well respected and referenced by researchers today.
She identified six key stages of play corresponding to milestones in social development.
1. Unoccupied Play
Play starts earlier than you might think. Even infants in their first few months of life outside the womb begin to participate in what’s known as unoccupied play. You might also think of this stage as pre-play since it’s laying a foundation for future stages of play.
Unoccupied play may not look like play to the casual observer since a baby at this stage is relatively stationary. The baby may be lying on their back, for example, moving their arms and legs or looking around the room. In many cases, a baby may seem to be merely observing their environment. While the movements they make may seem random and minimal, these children are learning a lot about the world around them at this early age.
2. Solitary Play
Another stage of play that can begin in infancy is solitary play, also called independent play. Typically, this stage begins anywhere from 0 to 2 years of age. Children who are engaged in solitary play are more focused on a specific activity compared to unoccupied play. Like the previous stage, however, children are still engaging in this type of play on their own. The important thing that distinguishes this type of play is that it doesn’t depend on a peer or adult. Children are learning how to have fun all by themselves.
Children who are playing alone may interact with objects, such as toys or household items. A baby who shakes a rattle or a toddler who bangs on a pot with a wooden spoon, for example, can be having a great time regardless of the presence of others. Learning how to play independently is an important skill, and children continue to engage in solitary play even once they start socializing with others.
3. Spectator Play
The next stage of play, which often emerges between the ages of 2 1/2 and 3 1/2, is known as spectator, or onlooker play. This is the stage where children begin to notice other people and become interested in watching what they’re doing. This may look like a small child watching older siblings play a game in the living room or sitting still on the grass at the park, engrossed in what the other children are playing.
While it may seem as though small children who are intensely observing other kids at play are simply wishing they could be included, that isn’t necessarily the case. Children learn by observation. By taking on the role of an observer, children prepare themselves for group play once they’re developmentally ready for that stage.
4. Parallel Play
Usually between ages 2 and 3, though sometimes sooner, children start to play alongside other children. Their interactions with other children remain limited, though. This stage is an important bridge between individual and group play since children remain in the comfort zone of playing independently but are becoming more aware of other children and how they play.
Caregivers in a daycare center may observe this stage of play when children have free time to use the playground equipment outside or the toys in the room. Many toddlers gravitate toward playing on their own — doing a puzzle, exploring a playground climber, or playing with building blocks, for example — and look up periodically to see what the other children are doing. Children may also share the same toys without coordinating their efforts.
Even though this may still look like solitary play, the awareness of others is an important distinction and shows that children are nearly ready to engage with their peers.
5. Associative Play
Associative play is common among preschool children in the 2-4 age range. Like parallel play, associative play involves children playing on their own alongside each other. The key difference between parallel and associative play is that, rather than simply noticing what other children are doing, at this stage, kids begin to interact. They’re still not quite to the point of coordinating their play, but they may communicate with each other while they play independently.
These interactions can help children begin to develop crucial problem-solving and cooperation skills. For example, a child coloring a picture across the table from another child may ask whether they can borrow the red crayon. A child using the slide at the playground may be learning to wait until the child before them has exited the slide before sliding down themselves. Even though these children are still playing independently, they’re beginning to become more social.
6. Cooperative Play
The previous five stages lead up to the sixth social stage of play — cooperative play, also referred to as social play. Children have already been interacting to an extent during playtime in previous stages. Now, typically between the ages of 4 and 5, they begin coming together to engage in group play. Now, their play is coordinated. This could mean their activities have a common purpose, or their pretend play is centered on the same imaginary scenario.
Cooperative play can take many forms. In later years, it may look like playing on a sports team. At younger ages, it may be playing with another child on a seesaw or acting out an imaginary scenario together — pretending to be a doctor and patient, for instance. Children may still choose to play on their own at times, but when given the chance to play with other children, they’re likely to have fun doing so. Plus, this sort of play can help children develop social and emotional skills they take with them into adulthood.
Other Types of Play by Activity Type
Classifying play according to a child’s stages of development and social interaction is insightful, and it can be even more helpful to pair Parten’s analysis with some other frameworks for understanding play. We can also classify different varieties of play according to the types of activities kids are engaged in. The following five types of play are just as important to understand to recognize the full breadth of the many ways kids play.
7. Physical Play
Some play is predominantly physical. Physical play could include, for example, swinging on a swing set or climbing up steps and going down a slide repeatedly. The physical movement can be what makes the play fun. Another term for physical play is active play. Physical activity is essential for children of all ages, especially for kids 3 years old and older. Experts recommend that children between the ages of 3 and 5 remain active throughout the day, and children 6 and up get at least an hour of physical activity a day.
Children are naturally inclined to engage in physical play. Still, the prevalence of technology means that many children today do not get enough physical activity. Physical play has some important benefits for children. For one, it can help them avoid childhood obesity, which is an all-too-common problem among American youth. Physical play can also help children build muscular strength and hone their fine- and gross-motor skills. Many types of physical play can also help children develop their sense of balance and coordination.
8. Competitive Play
From the ages of 2 to 5, unstructured free play is the best way to encourage physical exercise. However, some children may naturally start to turn games into competitions. For example, they may compete for who can swing the highest or throw a ball the farthest. Some children may be more competitive than others, but the desire to compete at some level is innate. Around ages 6 to 9, children become ready for more structured, competitive play.
Competitive play for children this age and older often takes the form of team sports, such as soccer or basketball. Competitive play doesn’t have to be physical, though. It may also look like playing a board game or a video game. Whatever type of competitive play kids are engaged in, they should be reaping some important benefits. Through competition, children can learn about following rules, taking turns, working together in a team, strategizing, and coping with failure. Winning in competitive play can also boost a child’s confidence.
9. Symbolic Play
Sometimes, playtime involves getting creative and using objects to aid in this creativity. This is known as symbolic play. At its simplest level, symbolic play could look like a baby producing music with a xylophone or a toddler putting a colander on their head and pretending it is a hat. The point of playing the xylophone, for example, is something immaterial — the melodious notes it makes.
In these activities, children show they understand that objects and the meanings they represent can be separate entities, which is an essential cognitive skill. This understanding is critical for numeracy and literacy.
Symbolic play can take many forms. Often, it involves what you might deem creative pursuits or activities. Children may sing for fun, for example, or take part in art projects, such as sculpting with clay or coloring. Symbolic play activities can help children learn how to express themselves creatively and prepares them to use symbols in practical ways.
10. Fantasy Play
Another type of play that overlaps with symbolic play is fantasy play, also called dramatic play or pretend play. Children usually start pretending around 2 years of age. They can enjoy fantasy play on their own or with others. Fantasy play may also weave its way into other forms of play. For example, a child swinging at the playground is engaging in physical play and could also be engaging in fantasy play if they imagine that they’re a superhero flying through the air.
Other ways to engage in fantasy play include:
- Dressing up in costumes.
- Acting out imaginary scenarios with dolls or action figures.
- Playing “house” with friends.
- Putting on a play for their parents.
Children often get inspiration from real-life events and the stories they read and watch and may want to act out these scenarios themselves. Themed playgrounds and playground sculptures can also encourage pretend play and spark kids’ imagination during playtime.
Whether they’re pretending to slay a dragon in the backyard or imagining that the playset is really a rocket ship, children are exercising their minds, enhancing their self-confidence, and in the case of cooperative fantasy play, are learning social skills.
11. Constructive Play
Another way children can get creative is through constructive play. This type of play involves putting things together. For example, this would include making a sandcastle at the beach or playing with building blocks. Children are usually ready to start stacking blocks as early as 15 months, though they typically won’t be able to construct with 10 or more blocks until they’re closer to 3 years old.
Older kids gain have the concentration and fine motor skills needed for more advanced construction activities, such as putting together model sets. Constructing without a guide to follow can help kids develop their creativity, and building according to a set of instructions can help kids learn how to follow directions. Kids can also learn engineering concepts and problem-solving skills when they figure out how to make something structurally sound. Whether it’s a pillow fort, a model plane, or a plastic brick castle, kids can take great pride in their constructions.
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To fully capitalize on the benefits of play, children should be given opportunities to take part in every variety of play. Some types of play are well-suited to time at home, while others truly flourish in outdoor settings. Children can benefit significantly from designated playtime on the playground. With open spaces, friends to play with, and quality playground equipment, children can engage in any social stage of play and can take part in physical, competitive, symbolic, fantasy, and constructive play — all in one place.
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