What is play
Play is often regarded as an activity done for its own sake because the process is enjoyable and generates positive emotions in participants. In most cases, it is a voluntary activity that is fun, spontaneous, and self-initiated1.
As stated in Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN, 1989), playing is a fundamental need and right of all children2.
Play is an essential part of a child’s development and education experience3. The benefits can be immediate and long-term4.
Children spend between 3% and 20% of their time and energy playing. Younger children play longer and more vigorously after being deprived of play opportunities, such as being kept in classrooms5.
Play is almost universal among children, except for those who are malnourished, deprived, or who have severe disabilities.
10 Types of play
There are many ways to categorize various types of play.
For instance, sociologist Midred Parten classified different stages of play based on the level of social participation and social development. Psychologist Jean Piaget categorized different types of play by the conceptual content a child can learn in them.
Let’s examine the common types of play that child experts believe are essential to healthy children’s development.
Physical play for physical and cognitive development
Physical play, also known as locomotor play or exercise play, is a physical activity that uses and develops a child’s gross motor skills and fine motor skills. Tag, hide-and-seek, slides, ball games, and monkey bars are a few examples.
Children develop muscle growth, physical skills, endurance, and coordination through this type of play.
The physical form of play that involves a lot of movements is especially important to school-age children. Students nowadays spend long hours in the classroom6. Exercises can help spread out the cognitive learning that is too demanding at this age to reduce stress and improve their cognitive skills. It also enhances moods, focus, and behavior in classroom7.
Therefore, physical play contributes to the development of children not only on a motor level but also a cognitive level8.
Social play for social competence development
Social play involves playful interactions with others. For infants and toddlers, this means interacting with their parents in a fun family activity. Older children engage in social play with their peers.
Children develop social skills through social play. Although the word “social” implies positive and active interaction, social plays don’t always appear so as defined by adults. This is because “social” can take different forms at different developmental milestones. Age greatly influences the type of social participation a child will have.
Here are three characteristic social plays found in young children9.
Parallel play is often observed in toddlers younger than two. It involves children playing side by side without directly interacting. Their level of social interaction is playing beside each other. There are no direct social interactions, but they are social in nature by engaging in similar activities or playing similar toys beside each other.
Researchers have found a correlation between parallel play and intelligence in young children (two-year-olds), but the reasons and mechanisms are unknown.
Associative play is a form of group play in which members of the group are involved with similar activities in a loosely organized way. It is more common in older children starting at age three. Since children at this age still lack the ability to express themselves verbally, it is not yet a fully organized group play.
A child learns social interaction skills while playing with other children. They may start a conversation about something they do in common and enjoy the association.
Cooperative play is group play that is organized for a common goal such as building a material product together, winning a competition, or playing board games. There is active interaction and a distinct sense of belonging or not belonging to the group.
Children at this stage start developing and refining complex social skills such as communication, conflict resolution, and problem-solving skills10.
Games with rules can help children develop attention and organization skills, such as following rules, reasoning, suppressing impulses, making decisions, and self-regulating emotions11.
Non-social play for self-regulation
Nonsocial play is defined as a behavior in which a child does not interact with others or occupy their time with any type of activity in the presence of other potential play partners.
Social play provides children with an important and unique learning environment through peer interaction. At first glance, nonsocial play may concern some parents. However, not all types of nonsocial play are cause for concern, and nonsocial play is actually normal in earlier stages of child development.
There are two broad types of nonsocial play – solitary play and reticent behavior12.
Each type can further be divided into two subtypes.
Solitary play can be classified as constructive or nonconstructive. Reticent behavior can be categorized as onlooking play or unoccupied play.
The four classes of nonsocial play are:
Solitary constructive play
Solitary constructive play is the movement of objects for the purpose of creating something or exploring. Examples include creating artwork, solving puzzles, and stacking up building blocks.
Solitary non-constructive play
Non-constructive solitary play involves repeated or random movements and can be done with an object such as bouncing a ball off the wall.
Observing others’ activities without participating is called on-looking play. Such behavior shows a lack of interaction with the physical and social environment.
During unoccupied “play”, a child does nothing and does not observe other children.
Nonsocial play varies in amount from child to child. Some children regularly play alone, while others play in groups where friendships and social networks are formed
It is sometimes assumed that playing alone can indicate social problems and difficulties with adjustment.
Researchers suggest, however, that autonomous functioning, time for self-reflection, a preference for aloneness, and independent learning contribute to why some kids engage in nonsocial behaviors and should not be viewed as a cause for concern.
It is not the quantity of young children’s social interaction that caregivers should be concerned with, but the quality of their social interactions when they do take place. Kids who like to explore their environment and learn about it on their own are better adjusted than those who spend too much or too little time alone12.
Other healthy reasons children engage in nonsocial play include young age, peace of mind, self-regulation, and being in control of their environment.
In contrast, children who have little social interaction may be at risk for poor developmental outcomes. If you believe your child is at risk, consult your pediatrician for a full evaluation.
Language play for language development
Language play refers to children manipulating the forms or functions of language as a way of amusing themselves and/or others.
Language play is different at different ages. Around age 1, children begin to play phonetically alone13. Toddlers may talk to themselves before sleeping or waking up by the age of two14.
By the age of 3 and 4, children are telling jokes in a humorous way.
Language play promotes the development of various language skills, including sounds, vocabulary, meaning, grammar, and appropriate use in an interactive situation.
Pretend play for emotional development
Pretend play involves pretending that an object or action is something different from what it really is in the real world. Pretend play is also known for a variety of names, including role play, sociodramatic play, imaginative play, creative play, and fantasy play
Children play new roles and reflect on their experience of reality in a safe environment. They can experiment with languages, and learn about emotions in a fantasy situation. In addition to thinking and creating beyond their physical world, pretend play offers a chance for children to assume adult roles and learn abstract thinking.
When done in a group setting, children need to learn teamwork and work together. They learn important skills including negotiation skills (who gets what role), emotional skills (acting out an emotion without losing control), and communication skills (speaking to another child during fantasy play)15.
- 1.Storli R, Hansen Sandseter EB. Children’s play, well-being and involvement: how children play indoors and outdoors in Norwegian early childhood education and care institutions. International Journal of Play. Published online January 2, 2019:65-78. doi:10.1080/21594937.2019.1580338
- 2.McGOLDRICK D. THE UNITED NATIONS CONVENTION ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD. Int J Law Policy Family. Published online 1991:132-169. doi:10.1093/lawfam/5.2.132
- 3.Milteer RM, Ginsburg KR, Mulligan DA, et al. The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bond: Focus on Children in Poverty. Pediatrics. Published online January 1, 2012:e204-e213. doi:10.1542/peds.2011-2953
- 4.Smith PK, Pellegrini A. Learning through play. Encyclopedia on early childhood development. 2008;24(8):61.
- 5.Pellegrini AD, Smith PK. Physical Activity Play: The Nature and Function of a Neglected Aspect of Play. Child Development. Published online June 1998:577-598. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.1998.tb06226.x
- 6.Bjorklund DF, Brown RD. Physical Play and Cognitive Development: Integrating Activity, Cognition, and Education. Child Development. Published online June 1998:604-606. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.1998.tb06229.x
- 7.Caterino MC, Polak ED. Effects of Two Types of Activity on the Performance of Second-, Third-, and Fourth-Grade Students on a Test of Concentration. Percept Mot Skills. Published online August 1999:245-248. doi:10.2466/pms.19184.108.40.206
- 8.Pellegrini AD, Smith PK. School Recess: Implications for Education and Development. Review of Educational Research. Published online March 1993:51-67. doi:10.3102/00346543063001051
- 9.Parten MB. Social participation among pre-school children. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. Published online October 1932:243-269. doi:10.1037/h0074524
- 10.Broadhead P. Conflict resolution and children’s behaviour: observing and understanding social and cooperative play in early years educational settings. Early Years. Published online July 2009:105-118. doi:10.1080/09575140902864446
- 11.Savina E. Does play promote self-regulation in children? Early Child Development and Care. Published online January 13, 2014:1692-1705. doi:10.1080/03004430.2013.875541
- 12.Luckey AJ, Fabes RA. Understanding Nonsocial Play in Early Childhood. Early Childhood Educ J. Published online March 25, 2006:67-72. doi:10.1007/s10643-006-0054-6
- 13.GARVEY C. Play with Language and Speech11This chapter is a shortened and revised version of a paper presented to the Conference on The Biology of Play, Farnham, Surrey, June, 1975. Much of the research on which the chapter is based was supported by the National Institutes of Mental Health, Grant No. MH 23883-03. Child Discourse. Published online 1977:27-47. doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-241950-8.50008-3
- 14.Crystal D. Language play and linguistic intervention. Child Language Teaching and Therapy. Published online October 1996:328-344. doi:10.1177/026565909601200307
- 15.Fein GG. Pretend Play in Childhood: An Integrative Review. Child Development. Published online December 1981:1095. doi:10.2307/1129497