“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” – Mr. Rogers, television personality
Children naturally play for fun, yet 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. Each one has its own unique value, and most importantly, all five types of play are interconnected.
Exploratory/Object/Sensory 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.
Construction Play – 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 pieces 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.
Physical Play – Like exploratory play, physical play begins in babyhood and plays an important role in motor development and health. As they learn to use their bodies in more complex ways, they begin to play through running, climbing, jumping or engaging in “tumbling” activities. From there, physical play leads to games with rules, like tag or organized sports.
Imaginative Play – Imaginative play emerges when toddlers are about 18-months-old, alongside the cognitive milestone of symbolic thinking. Also known as pretend 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 imaginative play is that children use it to understand their emotional world. As an example, you might observe a toddler putting a stuffed animal on a potty chair while they themselves are potty training. Or an older child and a sibling might act out driving a car from their own observations and experiences.
Games with Rules – Around age five, after having plenty of practice with other types of play, children begin to play games with rules (card games, board games or sports). 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.
The most important thing to remember is that every type of play nurtures a child’s development, and also supports the development of more sophisticated types of play. For example, 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 imaginative play helps children feel engaged and challenged as they learn and grow.
With just a few materials and plenty of opportunities, it’s easy to encourage all types of play!