The power of play – Part 3: Types of play

How do children play and what does “play” look like?

Play teaches children important skills.
Play teaches children important skills.

Play is a child’s first education experience. It is the way they connect to others and learn about themselves. Play teaches children important skills and prepares them for life skills they will use throughout their childhood and adult lives. In order to support learning through play for young children, it is first important to understand the different types of play and why they are beneficial for children.

Peter Gray’s “Free to Learn” highlights the following different types of play and why they are important to development.

Physical play

Physical play is any play that involves physical or motor skills. Whenever children engage in running, jumping, spinning, chasing or roughhousing, they are working on physical play. Children develop strong bodies and become coordinated, and physical play allows them to express the undeniable energy of childhood.

Physical play can also help children develop a physical sense of self, boundaries and impulse control. When children have physical control over their bodies, they begin to form the brain connections that allow them to control those movements, both on a motor level and on a cognitive level. A child is more prepared to control their hands in interactions with others if they have a sense of mastery of their motor skills.

Language play

Beginning around two months, children start to play with language by making repetitive cooing sounds. As they continue to develop, children use their voices, sounds and eventually words for entertainment purposes beyond basic communication. Older children may invent new words, practice rhymes or suddenly become miniature comedians and respond to everything with a knock-knock joke.

Children play with phrases, puns, rhymes, alliterations and alternative grammar. Language play involves children manipulating play in order to entertain themselves, or they may use language as a tool in their other play, such as speaking directions to another child during fantasy play.

Exploratory play

This type of play involves, you guessed it, exploring something new or unfamiliar. The world is big and sometimes overwhelming (even for adults). When children engage in exploratory play, they gain not only the skills they need to explore, but also the desire to understand or learn about new things.

Exploratory play might look as simply as a toddler walking through a climber at the park, figuring out what new and exciting opportunities for play it offers. Exploration play promotes understanding and a child’s internal drive to learn.

Constructive play

When children build something or work to produce some structure they have created in their mind, they are engaging in constructive play. Children who engage in constructive play have the opportunity to enhance their cognitive development by practicing. Not only do children practice cognitive skills, but they also work on fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination and basic engineering skills. Constructive play also allows children the opportunity to be creative, express themselves and often extend other play, like fantasy play.

Fantasy play

Children use their imagination in fantasy or pretend play, which gives them opportunities to figure out how the world works and then create their own world. Pretend play allows children to explore different roles and relationships. When children take on a role during their play, like “Mommy,” “Grandpa,” “Doctor,” or “Giant flying dragon,” they get to explore how each character operates in the real world. What is their job? How do they speak? What do they care about?

The wonderful thing about fantasy play is children not only get to practice these roles and relationships, but they learn to think outside the box through the ability to question rules and norms and explore multiple possibilities and challenge the logical processes of the world. Along with the important skill-building capacity of fantasy play, it also presents an opportunity for children to escape and have fun. Just like adults might dive into a book or movie to temporarily escape the stress and responsibilities of normal life, children can benefit from the opportunity to escape to a world of their own making.

Social play

Social play is incredibly important for young children’s development. When children engage in social play they are required to practice important social and life skills like communication, compromise, cooperation, problem-solving, turn-taking and self-expression. Children practice roles, learn acceptable behavior and practice important life skills like negotiation.

These types of play are not separate entities – children can be engaged in several of these types of play all at the same time. This speaks to the wonderful power of play. In playing, children have the opportunity to practice skills, learn and grow from even the most basic play experiences. You can help your child reach their potential by simply helping them play.

Don’t miss the other articles in The Power of Play series, “Stages of play” and “Born to play.”

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

Other articles in this series

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