by Kathy Eugster
Child development experts recognize that multiple different forms of play are beneficial for child development. However, parents may get confused and overwhelmed with all the many terms and definitions used for the different forms of children’s play. This article will give you a basic framework to help you understand some of these different forms of children’s play your child may engage in.
Children combine objects, verbalizations, actions, and interactions with others in a variety of ways. That’s why children’s play is complex and can take on many different forms. Sometimes children like to play in very physical and active ways. At times, they like to role-play being another character, for example, being a mother tiger or a superhero. And they often like to pretend that one object represents another, for example, when a block is used as a car. Children love to explore and manipulate toys and objects, and then assemble, build, and make things from the different objects. Children will enjoy playing independently on their own or with one or more play partners. And of course, at the right stage, children love to play board games and card games or engage in any fun activity or game that may have directions or rules.
To somewhat simplify this complex topic, let’s start by looking at two basic ways that children play:
- How children play with objects
- How children play with others
How children play with objects
Children’s play often involves their use of objects or toys. How children use the objects or toys changes as they mature and develop the ability to pretend. Learning about how children play with objects can help you as your child grows and plays with objects in new and more complex ways.
Psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was known for his work on child development and his work has contributed to our understanding of how children play with objects. Let’s look at some ways children play with objects:
- Sensorimotor play
- Active physical play
- Constructive play
- Functional play
- Symbolic, imaginary or pretend play
- Games with rules
Initially, babies will explore a toy or object using all their senses to understand how it works. For example, they will put toys in their mouths, shake rattles, and poke fingers in objects. This is called sensorimotor play and this type of play is very important, not only just for infants, but for all ages of children. This type of play is excellent for nervous system development, especially self-regulation skills. PlayDoh or sand and water play are excellent sensorimotor activities for children.
Children love to move and active physical play starts with infants moving their arms and legs and continues all the way through childhood. Active play is necessary for healthy physical development in children. Outdoor active play with large play equipment for free play that includes sliding, climbing, balancing, and swinging is encouraged. Active play can involve risky play where the activity challenges children to take risks, which is important for healthy development. Please see my Blog on Risky Play for more information on this topic.
Constructive play begins when children use objects in an organized, goal-oriented way to make or build things. As babies grow into toddlers, they will continue to explore and manipulate objects. Initially, relational play happens when children start to stack blocks and group objects. As children grow, they will construct more and more complex things. Constructive play helps to develop fine motor skills as children manipulate objects in different ways. Constructive play also encourages problem-solving and creative skills when children put things together to make a finished product. Children engage in creative play when they make something of their own design, not necessarily following rules or instructions.
Functional play, which starts at a very young age, means using a toy or object for its intended purpose in a conventional way. For example, a rattle can be shaken, a drum can be tapped, and crayons can be used to draw on paper. Functional play is considered to be pre-symbolic play.
As children mature, they will engage in another type of play called symbolic, imaginary, or pretend play. This type of play begins when the child represents one object or toy with another object or toy. In other words, a representation, or symbol, takes the place of a real object. This can also be called representational play. The ability to represent objects can begin in the toddler years, and continues to develop in complexity as a child gains more abstract thinking abilities.
Very young children use objects that closely resemble the real object, for example, when a child pretends to drink from a toy cup. As children develop, the representational objects need to less closely resemble the real object. This is called object substitution. For example, a child could use a box to represent a car, a toy banana to represent a phone, or even put hand to ear as if holding a phone.
Beginning in the preschool years, dramatic or role play happens when children assign a pretend or imaginary role to themselves or others, for example, pretending to be a superhero or taking on the role of a toy dragon. Children role-play when they use props and take on the voice and actions of others. When children first begin to role-play they take on familiar roles, such as that of a parent or doctor. As children develop, they take on more complex roles, such as astronaut or police officer, and may even take on fantastical roles, such as wizard or superhero, that are based completely in fantasy play.
When children engage in role play with others, it is called sociodramatic play, for example, three children make a fort with pillows and blankets and assign roles to each other.
Games with rules are play activities that have rules that are agreed upon ahead of time and that organize the play. Although traditionally, games with rules such as board and card games are more suited to children ages five and older, young children can also enjoy games with rules. For example, infants love peek-a-boo games and toddlers enjoy chasing games. Preschoolers can engage in simple board games, especially cooperative games. Games with rules become more complex as children get older and may start to involve competition and skills rather than just luck.
How children play with others
All children love and need to play with others starting at birth. When children play with one or more play partners, it is called social play. Playing with others encourages the development of social skills. Mildred Parten, an American sociologist, developed a theory on the social stages of children’s play in 1929 and identified six categories of play (unoccupied, solitary, onlooker, parallel, associative, and cooperative) that have been useful in helping us understand children’s social play development.
Children engage with parents or other adults at birth to begin with. From about age one and a half or two, children start to become interested in playing with other children as well, initially with one other child and later with more than one play partner as they acquire more social skills. Peer play may involve same-age or mixed-age groups. Please remember however, with peer play and independent play, adults still need to be available and attentive to monitor and supervise their children and to step in as needed.
Let’s look at the different ways that children play (or don’t play) with others.
Play with adults
Social play begins at birth. Infants or parents may initiate playful interactions, such as peek-a-boo, and each will pause for a response from the other. Back and forth interactions are usually repetitious and rhythmic. These rhythmic interactions between parent or caregiver and child are so important during the first two years for healthy development of a child’s brain.
Adult-child play, especially parent-child play, continues to be very important for children of all ages. My work over many years has focused on the benefits of parent-child play, which offers unique benefits over children’s solitary or peer play. These benefits include strengthening the parent-child relationship and supporting healthy child development overall. I invite you to please explore my website for support in feeling more comfortable and confident engaging with your child in parent-child play.
Play with peers
Knowing about your child’s social development with respect to other children helps you as your child learns to play with siblings, friends, and peers. It will also help you as you engage in parent-child play knowing how your child may engage with you at certain stages.
Social play with peers begins at a very young age. With a type of play beginning in infancy called onlooker play, a child watches and listens to other children at play without engaging in the play. Here, children are beginning to show interest in playing with other children and are learning about social rules and interactions by observing.
As children get older another type of play arises, called parallel play, where a child plays separately but closely to others, possibly doing a similar activity, but not interacting or talking with each other. This type of play begins during the toddler years. An example would be two children sitting side-by-side in a sandbox playing independently, each with their shovel and pail.
With associative play, a child is interested in the others but not necessarily in the activities the others are engaged in. Here children begin to practice social skills. The activities engaged in are not organized and although children may share, copy, and talk with each other, they do not share common goals as with cooperative play. This is typical preschool play. An example would be two children playing in a sandbox, sharing shovels and pails, and occasionally talking to each other
With cooperative play, a child becomes interested in both the others playing and in the activity they are engaged in. The activity is more organized as the children attempt to coordinate their actions and take turns. An example would be two children playing in the sand building a town with each child taking on a role or task. This type of play arises generally around three to four years and requires a higher level of social maturity. It is often associated with much conflict between participants because of the need to share, take turns, and negotiate rules!
With cooperative play, the participants may create a play scenario together with characters and a plot or story line. Participants would role-play different characters and use props for the imaginary story. This advanced level of pretend play with others is called sociodramatic play. An example would be two children pretending to be firefighters putting out a fire. Another form of cooperative play, called rough-and-tumble play, happens when children engage in physical contact with each other in a cooperative manner. Please see my Blog, Stop Roughhousing! But Wait, Isn’t Rough-and-tumble Play Okay, for more information on this type of play.
The type of play where children play alone and may be uninterested or unaware of what others are doing is called independent or solitary play and is a form of non-social play . Sometimes infants engage in unoccupied play consisting of sensory activities that lack focus or narrative, such as mouthing a toy. Toddlers prefer playing on their own rather than with their peers. A preschooler may play alone pretending to care for a doll. An older child may independently build a castle and play with characters in the castle.
Independent play is an important type of play for children of all ages and encourages independence skills. Children need free time on their own for healthy development in many different ways. Imaginative, creative, and problem-solving skills are all supported during independent play. Please see my Blog, Encouraging Independent Play, for more information on this topic.
What you can do
I encourage you to notice how many different forms of play your child engages in and keep in mind the following questions:
- What toys does your child play with?
- How do they play with these toys?
- Who does your child play with?
- How do they play together?
- Are you a play partner at times with your child?
Please remember that multiple different forms of play are important for healthy child development. Please see my Blog, Playing Through the Ages (and Stages), for more information on how to play with your child during different developmental stages.
Here’s something to think about:
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Barton Lab at Vanderbilt University: Supporting the social development of all young children. https://lab.vanderbilt.edu/barton-lab/resources-for-caregivers/about-ptl/ptl-infographics/
Heidemann, S., & Hewitt, D. (1992). Pathways to play: Developing play skills in young children. Redleaf Press. https://reg.abcsignup.com/files/%7B07D0901F-86B6-4CD0-B7A2-908BF5F49EB0%7D_59/playchpaters.pdf
Smith, P.K., & Pellegrini, A. (2023). Learning through play. In: Tremblay, R.E., Boivin, M., Peters, R., eds. Smith, P.K., topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. https://www.child-encyclopedia.com/play/according-experts/learning-through-play Updated: March 2023. Accessed August 27, 2023.
Copyright Kathy Eugster, MA, 2023.
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