Types of play

If you look up different types of play, you will almost certainly find the six stages of play development in pre-schoolers suggested by the research of Mildred Parten in 1932.  Parten suggested that children move through stages of: unoccupied play,  solitary independent play and onlooker play, to parallel play, associative play and then cooperative play.  You can find out more about this here on Purewow.

For older children though, it’s worth bearing in mind that being playful comes in lots of different guises.  Some children may develop a preference for one type of play over another, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but for a well-rounded child, it’s a good idea to encourage participation in a good balance of different types of play.

Below, I’ve summarised some of the different forms of play you will come across.

Physical Play

Playing on the swings, running races, monkey bars, tag, gymnastics in the sitting room, wrestling, spinning, skipping, football and badminton.  Your child may engage in physical play independently or with others.  When they engage in this play they aren’t doing it to “get fit” or “be active”, they are doing it because they enjoy it.  Sometimes they may initiate an element of competition, but that isn’t the most important thing in the play.


Creative play

Any play where the child is able to use their imagination to make something or to create a world in their head can be termed creative play.  This includes the worlds they can create with building blocks, Lego, dolls houses and playmobil as well as drawing, painting, playdough, crafts and story-writing.  Sometimes they may be following instructions or building a kit, at other times they may be creating more freely from their own imagination.

Role play

Role play is a really important way for your child to make sense of the world around them.  From “feeding baby” with a doll, to a complex game of “cops and robbers” or “mums and dads” as they start school.  Role play can be inspired by a story, or by providing a few props.  A basket of generic dressing-up items – you don’t have to buy ready-made costumes, which are limited to one character – a beard, a few hats, a toy stethoscope and a hand-bag from the charity shop, can be put to a very wider range of uses.  In their free time on the playground children still happily engage in role-play games right through Primary school, and after that, this is often developed through drama, plays or role-play games like Dungeons and Dragons.

Exploratory play

Exploratory play is where a child chooses to use their senses to explore the world around them.  This may be just sitting and scrunching leaves, or it may be peering through a telescope at the moon.  Making mud-pies, grabbing your own toes, squelching slime, pouring water from one container to another, playing with the door stop, cooking, and building sand-castles.  All involve exploring different materials.

word play

As they develop more facility with language, children add word play to their repertoire.  To begin with they will enjoy playing with rhyming or alliterative sounds, coming up with rhyming words, learning nursery rhymes and short poems etc.  Later they may enjoy finding out new words, creating acrostic poetry or acronyms, doing word-searches and finding and sharing puns or jokes which play on words.

social play

Technically this isn’t a type of play.  It’s just one of the ways play happens.  This is a natural progression.  By the time they reach Primary School, most children are happy to play cooperatively with other children as well as playing on their own.  The social skills involved in negotiating a shared game, establishing rules, sharing props, solving conflicts and communicating, or of being gracious both in defeat and victory are all part of the learning curve on the way to adulthood and this type of play is vital in developing them.


computer play

There’s a lot of controversy about computer games and screen time for children. 

There are a wide variety of computer games for children.  Some encourage coding, building and creating online (LegoWorld, Minecraft and Roblox), others involve a fantasy world where you collect things and solve problems, and others just involve a bit of in-computer role play – the hair salon or the vets.

We live in an age of technology and games have been designed that are fun, beautiful and inspiring (as well as some rubbish, just like anything else!).  

We should approach computer play like any other type of play, and ensure that our children are playing on the right game, with the right people, and getting a healthy balance.  I’ll be writing more about this at a later date.

Number play

Sadly, many adults have negative ideas about numbers and maths.  Be open to the idea of playing with numbers.  Children love to be able to count – counting steps, counting food, counting money; measure – for cooking etc. and to find and repeat patterns.  All these are great for developing maths skills but are also intrinsically fun – watch the delight a child can have playing with and sorting a big tub of buttons!  This kind of play includes board games – matching numbers to symbols on the dice and moving the corresponding number of spaces; dominoes; darts; counting games; there are some great times tables games on the computer; card games etc.

Musical Play

There’s always that irritating uncle whose idea of a joke is to get your child the noisiest toy in the shop.  The joke’s on them because while you hope that your child won’t strike up the band at six in the morning, playing that recorder or that tambourine is helping them develop their rhythm.  Opt for child versions of percussion toys or small “real” instruments rather than electronic noise toys.  Make a band together and play along gleefully (if tunelessly) to your favourite songs on the radio while parading around the kitchen.

Bringing it all together

You can probably visualise your child engaging in some of these different types of play and you will probably have a good idea of their preferences.  The thing to remember is that each of these different types of play is important for child development.  Make space for a good balance of lots of different types of play in your child’s life or in your child-care setting.  Encourage children to try different types of play (the best way to do this is always to start playing yourself – they will soon want to come and join you!).

A good mix of types of play will lead to a good mix of fun!