The power of play – Part 4: Characteristics of play

What does play look like and what are the characteristics of play?

Children's play has many different characteristics.
Children's play has many different characteristics.

In “The power of play – Part 2: Born to play,” the second installment of this article series, the five defining traits of play were identified as play being self-chosen and self-directed, focused on the process instead of the product, individually constructed, imaginative and active. While they define what play is, they don’t necessarily describe the play looks like.

Play can be as complicated as a detailed castle built from twigs and leaves or as simple as a child ripping paper, so what does play look like?

Characteristics of play

In Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework’s “Learning and developing through play,” 10 characteristics of play are defined:

  1. Active. During active play, children use their bodies and minds in play by interacting with the environment, materials and other people.
  2. Adventurous and risky. This type of play involves children exploring unknown or new concepts. When children engage in adventurous or risky pretend play, they are able to safety explore these concepts within the confines of a safety net.
  3. Communicative. Play presents a natural opportunity for children to share information and knowledge. Children can communicate verbally, using words or their bodies, postures and other non-verbal cues and these messages can be simple or more complicated.
  4. Enjoyable. Simply put, play is fun! When children play they should be enjoying themselves and they can often find excitement and humor in or through their play. If they aren’t having fun, it probably isn’t play. Instead of playing to win, children should be playing to play and have fun!
  5. Involved. Remember that play is a child’s work, and just like adults need to concentrate while working, children should concentrate during their play also. Children might become very involved while playing as they are actively thinking about what they are doing.
  6. Meaningful. Play provides opportunities for children to make sense of their world. Through play, children process the things they have seen and heard, what they know and what they don’t yet know. These experiences help children build upon their current knowledge, test out new theories and roles and grow their knowledge, understanding and skills.
  7. Sociable and interactive. While it is healthy and necessary for children to play independently, at least some of the time, play presents a unique and formative opportunity for children to engage in social interactions and build relationships with other children and adults.
  8. Symbolic. Children are able to test out roles, feelings, behaviors and relationships, replay things that have already happened in order to make sense of them. Symbolic play may just look like pretending, but it is actually laying the foundation for understanding of themselves and the larger world.
  9. Therapeutic. When play is fun, engaging and meaningful, it can be very therapeutic for children. Play can be a natural way for children to relieve stress and work through different emotions and experiences.
  10. Voluntary. Play is a self-chosen, spontaneous pursuit that children can change, alter and manipulate freely. Children should and will change the story, characters, materials, events, locations and purpose of their play at will.

While play can be as varied as the children themselves, these common characteristics describe play experiences that are fun, engaging and educational for young children.

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