As a play-based therapy center, we LOVE to talk about the power of play! Children naturally play for fun, but during play they’re also building and practicing skills, creating and strengthening relationships, exploring and processing emotions, and so much more.
Here, we’ll shine a light on five types of play, based on the work of child development researchers, as well as our own experience. Each of them has its own unique value, but most importantly, all five types of play are interconnected.
5 Types of Play
This is a child’s first experience with play, when they do things like grab objects (or food!), touch them, squeeze them, put them in their mouths, drop them, or bang them together. They’re developing fine motor skills and eye-hand coordination, while also learning about object characteristics and processing sensory information such as texture, temperature, scent, and flavor. Sensory play continues into preschool age and beyond.
How we encourage it – One of our favorite types of sensory play is using shaving cream for activities like finger drawing or hiding and finding small objects.
How you can encourage it – For babies, any safe object will do – from rattles to stuffed animals to a large kitchen spoon. Toys like blocks and sensory balls are great for toddler exploratory play. For older children, think messy play – like finger paint or simply playing in some backyard mud!
Once children learn how to manipulate objects during exploratory play, they can move on to using objects to build and create. For toddlers and preschoolers, this might be progressively building taller towers out of blocks, connecting Legos together, or using play dough. As children practice this type of play into elementary school, their creations become progressively more complex. Construction play can be done alone, or with others – which encourages collaboration and problem-solving.
How we encourage it – We love group craft projects, like murals, or ones where children share materials and make their own creations.
How you can encourage it – Keep toys like blocks, Legos, or connecting straws in your child’s play area. Offer and supervise activities with play dough, construction paper, or other art supplies.
Like exploratory play, physical play begins in babyhood (for example, infants swatting and kicking at dangling toys, or an older baby rolling a ball). As they learn to use their bodies in more complex ways, they begin to play through running, climbing, jumping, or engaging in “rough and tumble” activities. From there, physical play leads to games with rules, like tag or organized sports.
Physical play is important for motor development and health… and let’s face it: Without physical play you end up with cooped-up kiddos.
How we encourage it – When we run group programs, we always include physical play! Our favorite: OT-designed obstacle courses.
How you can encourage it – The easiest way: Build in regular outdoor time! Playgrounds, bike rides, playing catch, puddle jumping. Play dates (when it’s safe to do them) are great for physical play, too.
Pretend play emerges when toddlers are about 18-months-old, alongside the cognitive milestone of symbolic thinking. Also known as imaginative play, it develops through several stages from toddlerhood to elementary school: From pretending a block is a phone, to inventing increasingly dynamic imaginary storylines and acting them out using props, costumes, or sometimes nothing at all!
A unique and important aspect of pretend play is that children use it to understand their emotional world. You might observe a toddler putting a stuffed animal on a potty chair while they themselves are potty training, for example. Or an older child and a sibling might act out a car accident they observed on the road.
How we encourage it – Pretend play is a constant in our therapy sessions, and the children in our group programs have a chance for free play with props every day. We also incorporate imagination into yoga activities, when children pose like animals or pretend to float on a cloud.
How you can encourage it – Keep a few simple props around, like toy food, stuffed animals, and items for dress-up.
Games with Rules
Around age 5, after having plenty of practice with other types of play, children begin to play games with rules (card games, board games or sports, for example). Games with rules are critical for developing countless life skills, including following directions, collaborating, strategizing, self-regulating, and using resilience after a loss or failure. Elementary-aged children, when given the opportunity, will invent their own games with rules, which both reflects and further develops executive function skills – which are central to planning, organizing, and executing a goal.
How we encourage it – Organized games are a popular tool for our therapists, because they support so many important skills.
How you can encourage it – Keep a couple of games that are appropriate for your child’s developmental stage (you can find some of our favorite board games for all ages here), and play them together!
The most important thing to remember is that every type of play has value on its own, and also supports other types of play. Object play helps children manage tools during constructive play. Regular physical play helps children feel confident playing sports or other active games. The planning and problem solving involved in pretend play helps children feel engaged and successful when playing board games. And on and on.
With just a few materials and plenty of opportunities, it’s easy to encourage all types of play!
A note about play during the time of Covid. Social distancing and other safety measures naturally reduce children’s opportunities to socialize. The next-best thing: You! Even brief periods of playing together are highly beneficial for your child.