Play is a combination of exploration, physical activities, artistic experiences, and self-expression. It can happen in organized or free form, in a group setting, or independently. Research into child psychology and pedagogy have identified many different types
of play essential for the overall well-being of growing children.
Let’s take a closer look at different types of play and find out how to support kids make the best out of playtime.
1. 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.
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!
2. 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 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 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.
3. Physical Play
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.
How you can encourage it – The easiest way: Build in regular outdoor time! Playgrounds, bike rides, playing catch, puddle jumping. Playdates (when it’s safe to do them) are great for physical play, too.
4. Pretend Play
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!
How you can encourage it – Keep a few simple props around, like toy food, stuffed animals, and items for dress-up.
5. 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 reflect and further develops executive function skills – which are central to planning, organizing, and executing a goal.
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!