The 7 Types of Play Essential to Children’s Development

Featured here are the seven types of play that are essential to a child's development. Read all about it!

Every parent that has a child is interested in who they are going to be, what they are going to be like, how important in life they will be, how successful they will be and what kinds of struggles and challenges will they face growing up into adulthood and during their adulthood. All parents hope they live long enough to be able to guide their children to be the best that they can be in life. They also hope they will be around long enough to be able to meet all of their grandchildren and even some of their great-grandchildren. This is why parents have to start now when their children are very young and as soon as they enter the world. Your child’s life depends on the parents and how they were raised. Children are a product of their environment and all children develop at a different pace. The small child parents are carrying in their arms today, will someday grow up into an adult that parents can have a healthy relationship with. The way to start this process is by learning about the 7 types of play that is essential to your child’s development.

Play is an important learning tool and an emotional stress reliever of being a child. The only question “Is all play the same?” The answer is all children should be able to participate in all types of play for the simple reasons of supporting their emotional, physical, and intellectual development. Parents can be good at supporting this development and learning ability by coming up with a variety of imaginative, flexible ways and forms of play.

What does the wordplay mean?

Play is an important and critical piece of every child’s development. Play is the reason kids learn about socialization skills, thinking skills, solving problems, and the important part of playtime is to have fun in addition to becoming an emotional outlet.

Play is considered an activity of pleasure that interacts with words and play is also important to motivate children. There are 3 main reasons why play is important:

  • Play is a good way to learn, and this lets kids try adult roles and learn new skills
  • Play stimulates the child’s intense need for attachment, affection and being close to others
  • Play is an outlet for emotional distress and by role-playing out a difficult situation, this is how kids can heal emotionally

Why kids need different kinds of play

When children grow and develop, play starts to evolve. There are certain kinds of play that are associated with certain age groups, although many kinds of play happen at all ages.  Play is the way kids interact with each other and learn how to explore the world. There are different kinds of play needed to fully give kids a kick start with their social, physical and intellectual development.

Social stages of play

1. Unoccupied play 

Children that are between the ages of birth and three months old are considered to be busy with something called unoccupied play. Infants will use random movements for no clear reasoning behind it, but this is the start of the initial form of play.

2. Solitary play

Children between the ages of three to 18 months spend most of their time playing on their own. During the stage of solitary playtime, kids don’t really recognize or notice when there are other children sitting near them or playing next to them. They are into their own world and exploring and watching while grabbing and feeling the texture of different objects. Solitary play starts when they are infants and is also common in toddlers. Parents should know that solitary playtime is not only extremely important but practiced by all age groups.

3. Onlooker playtime

Children that reach their toddler years begin to experience onlooker playtime. The toddler watches other kids play and learns how to interact with other children while learning vocabulary by observing, and listening to other children talk to each other.

Toddlers will ask questions to the other kids in their group, however; they do not always make an effort to join in and play. They are more interested in observing and listening. This is very common in the toddler years but also can happen at any age depending on the child.

4. Parallel playtime

Children between the ages of 18 months to 2 years of age start to play next to each other without any interaction. Parallel playtime gives toddler opportunities for role-playing. This might be dressing up and playing pretend games. This type of playtime also helps children understand the concept of property ownership, which means certain objects belong to them and other objects belong to other children.

Toddlers begin to express the need to play with other children their own age. Parallel playtime is something toddlers find in common, although this type of playtime happens in all age groups of children.

5. Associative playtime

Children that are around three to four years old start becoming more interested in socializing than playing with toys. This is the time your child starts experimenting with making new friends. Associative playtime will help your child learn the rules of getting along with other children. They learn about sharing their toys and supplies, the art of speaking, they start learning how to solve problems by learning the skills associated with problem-solving techniques. They also learn how to cooperate with each other and the person in charge.

Children in the associative playtime age learn that they have common goals with their age group. At this point, there has not been a set of rules that have been established yet and there are not any real established formal organizational skills.

6. Social playtime

Children that start to reach the age of three are extremely interested in socializing with other children their age. They begin to interact with kids in a playful atmosphere and the child begins to learn social rules for their age group. They start to learn about “give” and take” cooperation skills within their group.

Children start to share their toys and suggest ideas. They also are familiar and understand the rules that have been established and the guidelines as well. They start to use moral reasoning and are on their way to develop their own set of values.

7. Physical playtime

It’s extremely important that children participate in physical play. The forms of physical playtime are running, jumping, playing games like hide-and-seek and tag. This is a good outlet for them to wear off their energy and participate with children their age in physical playtime. Physical playtime gives children the opportunity to build muscle strength, coordination skills, and exercise. This is the time children learn about taking their turn and learning how to win and lose and be happy for the winners and acceptant of losing.

Categories of Play

The 7 types of play essential to a child’s development have been discussed and now there are also categories of play that are important for children to learn and parents to understand. Your child would lead a pretty dull life if it wasn’t for playtime. As adults turn back the hands of time and remember their own good memories of playing either in a large city, a small town or out on grandma and grandpa’s farm, many adults think back and remember these were the carefree times and happy moments of their lives. The smell of grandma’s fresh bread and cookies, grandpa teaching them how to plow the fields, caring for horses, milking the cows, learning how to make butter. They learn how to clean the barn for grandma and grandpa. These are all basic work ethics kids have learned at a young age and also include playtime in their chores and responsibilities. After the chores were done, there was always the stream or the swimming hole down the road with the raft that kids could cool off in during summer. Swimming is another form of playtime that is critical to the development of self-confidence in children and building strong and healthy bodies.

If you spent a lot of your time in the city and smaller towns, there were still the festivals, public parks with swimming pools, hiking trails, skateboard parks, nature walks, roller skating, skiing, longboarding, etc. Mom probably made some ice cold drinks for hot summer days and kids spent a lot of their time biking. There are still many good memories from those events as well, so it’s important your children know how to play, so they start to learn how to socialize. Here are the categories of play:

1. Constructive play

This is the type of playtime where children are interested in building things. Constructive play can start when they are infants but becomes more difficult as your child grows up and they have to put on their critical thinking caps.

The act of a baby putting their toes in their mouth to observe how their toes taste and feel is the start of physical play. As the baby becomes a toddler, these toddlers start using blocks and learn how to build with them. They also enjoy starting to feel the texture of the sand and play in it. Toddlers also like to start to learn how to draw.

Children also begin to observe objects more closely during constructive play, they also are interested in the discovery of different kinds of patterns, and they start to begin the process of problem-solving. Toddlers want to discover what works and what doesn’t work. They start to gain confidence when they begin to manipulate toys and start creating ideas along with recognition of numbers and different concepts.

2. Expressive play

Children that enter this phase are not learning how to express their feelings and emotions during expressive playtime. Children this age begin to express themselves by using art supplies like crayons, paints, and playdough to discover expressive play. There are also beanbags, different clothing for pretend expressions, and musical instruments which are different types of learning expressive toys. This is how children this age develop their creative side and use symbolic communication skills by experimenting with expressive play.

3. Fantasy and drama

All children love to experiment with their imagination at this age and they have fun pretending in their own world during fantasy playtime. This is when they follow the role models their parents set and use abstract ways to think clearly.

Children can learn how to stretch their imaginations as far as they will go to be able to use new words and numbers to try and express the concepts they are trying to put together.  They even think about historical and imaginative concepts. This is when children learn how to re-enact situations, somewhat like the civil war recreations that are popular during certain holidays. Children also begin to experiment with different languages and express their emotions as an expression during fantasy playtime.

4. The virtual and digital world

Children are now resorting back to a world of a solitary playtime when they begin to become interested in the electronic world. This world consists of videos, computer-based learning programs and they play by themselves in a form of solitary play. They live in a world without social interaction and become somewhat of a misanthropist. They feel there are no consequences if there is no drama in their lives so they continue to get lost in the fantasy world of gaming. Virtual play can, in some cases, negatively impact the child’s functioning and social skills, which can include eye contact and attention deficits.

The role of parents

Parents have to remember that their role in their children’s playtime is critical. Parents can help to encourage their children to play by getting ahold of interesting playtime materials that encourage your child to want to explore and learn new skills. In addition, many parents don’t have the time to play with their children so playing with your child helps them learn how to manipulate their toys. This includes manipulating other playtime accessories by watching your actions and how you interact with their toys. Some children are going to be hands-on learners and others are going to be visual learners.

When play is not an option

Children can become ill so there are times they can’t play. Therefore, parents should realize that the health and well being of their child is more important than dropping them off at a school or daycare when they are sick. Most parents should have a sitter on call for these issues but some don’t know who to turn to in a crisis. If your child needs to go to the hospital, they can bring their favorite toys, books, crayons, and coloring books. Most children’s wards have a playroom for them to play with different toys and also have many videos that are movies for kids to watch. A hospital stay is a place where young children should have toys that they can learn to manipulate independently. This helps their parents to have the time to talk to about the medical issues of their child and also to talk to the providers on the healthcare team.

Play situations change depending on the child’s situation. If the child doesn’t speak English yet, they find games like lego and blocks or finding the pieces of tinker toys exciting.  Parents can also play CDs of popular children’s songs which can prove to be soothing to the child. Children don’t have to understand the words to the music to enjoy the song because they will still make an effort to clap to the rhythm.

When the child is seriously ill, they are not going to have the skills, attention span, or interest in playing. They will enjoy their families company and also being read to. They will also enjoy their favorite animal being close by for their own safety reasons. When the sudden part of their illness is over with, the child starts to return to playtime again. When your child shows a completely spontaneous reaction to playing, this tells the parents that they are recovering slowly. It’s always good to watch the toys your child chooses for playtime because this tells the parents what type of phase the child is in throughout the recovery process.

The importance of toys in a hospital setting

Parents that are taking their kids to the doctor will notice that the waiting room is probably full of other children. Your child might hear crying from a child being seen by a doctor or a nurse. This could scare the child to the point that they are not looking forward to the exam at all. Parents should bring a few of their favorite toys so they can become distracted while the commotion is going on. Make sure you sit with your child as well so they aren’t anxious. Your child might even wander away to look at some of the other toys that are in the waiting room as well. If your child is older and tags along with their parents and sick sibling, the older child should bring along things they like to play with, while they are waiting for their brother or sister to be diagnosed. This also will keep them busy if they bring along a quiet electronic game system that is small enough to use in the waiting too. This let’s mom or dad focus on their sick brother or sister.

Therapeutic play

Parents that bring an ill or traumatized child into the hospital or waiting room, should realize that the plan might change to therapeutic play. Therapeutic play is different from regular play and is guided by the health professionals, to meet the new needs of the physical and psychological tendencies of the child. Play is the language of kids, and children who are having problems with using their thoughts to speak clearly will now use playing as a form of speaking through therapy.

Sometimes children become very ill and are confined to their beds but they still like to play during the day, so medical staff schedules in these playtimes during the day for the sick child that is confined. 

Medical staff focuses on the length of time the sick child should be playing and the types of toys depending on the age of your child and what type of physical and emotional states they are experiencing at the moment. Short term school projects catch a child’s attention that is confined. This helps children feel useful because they are able to think about the future and the future wellness of themselves. Parents can still help their child their play back in action, to bathe, have them drink enough liquids during the day and encourage them to try deep breathing exercises along with exercises for the strengthening of their muscles.

Toy safety

Toys and games should be studied and screened intensely for safety issues, especially if there are many small pieces that are being used by a small child. Make sure that their toys are washable and observed for safety issues. Make sure there are no sharp edges and no small parts that have the possibility of being swallowed or stuck in their throats. The most dangerous size of a toy are the ones shaped like cylinders of 1 inch, which is the size of a regular hotdog. This size blocks the trachea or windpipe if the child is choking. A rule of thumb is if a toy can fit through the center of a toilet tissue tube, it’s too small.

Indoor play

Parents should consider purchasing toys that are soft for playing within the bed, and games for them to sit down and play with. Some suggestions are magic markers, puzzles, books or board games. These toys should be used when children have quiet time and can play outside of their beds.