From lion cubs wrestling on the savannah to kittens pouncing on strings, all youngsters play. And playtime isn’t all fun and games. It’s serious business when it comes to developing important skills needed to navigate the world. Of course, that goes for human kids, too!
Playing dress-up, building with blocks, trying competitive games: All types of play help children practice their social and emotional skills.
Interestingly, different types of play foster different aspects of growth and learning. In this article, we’ll explore 5 types of play that support child development, according to experts in the field. We’ll also provide play activity ideas that support each type of play so your child can get to business with some serious playtime.
What Are the Stages of Play?
Your child will move through many developmental stages: crawling, walking, teething, talking, and more. But did you know that children also move through the developmental stages of play?
Starting from their early years, children engage in play that evolves as they age. Sociologist Mildred Parten was one of the first to study types of play in child development. She identified six unique stages of play:1
- Unoccupied play – Begins in infancy, when babies perform simple activities like waving their arms, kicking their legs, and grabbing for toys. It helps them learn how their bodies work and understand the world around them.
- Solitary play – In the next stage, children play with more purpose but don’t include others in their activities. Parents sometimes worry that solo play is lonely or isolating for a young child, but it’s actually an important developmental stage. It helps build independence, motor skills, and problem-solving skills.
- Onlooker play – At this stage, kids will begin to observe how other children play. They won’t yet join in—they’re still absorbing information about how social interactions work.
- Parallel play – Have you ever seen two children playing side-by-side while seemingly ignoring each other? That’s parallel play. It often involves playing with the same toys or even imitating each other. At this stage, children develop an awareness of others and prepare for playing interactively.
- Associative play – Here, kids move their attention from the objects they’re playing with to what the children around them are doing. They aren’t yet playing together, but they’ll talk with each other and share toys and supplies.
- Cooperative play – All that observation and skill-building come together at this stage. In cooperative play, kids share a common goal or idea (“Let’s see how high we can build this tower”). They’ll assign roles, follow the rules, and work as a team while learning cooperation, planning, and problem-solving.
Children move through these stages in their own time. They also move back and forth between them, so don’t be concerned if your child engages in cooperative play one day but opts for parallel play the next.
5 Types of Play
Let’s look at how the stages of play relate to different types of play, from physical play to pretend play and beyond.
#1 Physical Play
When you hear “physical play,” your first thought might be tag or catch, but it begins as soon as babies begin to sit up, crawl, and toddle. And physical play isn’t just vital for fitness and health—it’s also critical for cognitive development.2
There are many ways you can encourage physical play at different ages:
- Under six months – Physical play should include at least 30 minutes of tummy time daily—it’s crucial for proper motor development.2 Infants can work up their strength several times a day rather than trying to find the time for one longer activity.
- Over six months – At this stage, it’s time to build leg strength and mobility. Encourage little ones to kick their feet, stand and bounce while you support them, and so on.
- Ages 1-3 – In toddlerhood, physical play begins to take off. It’s beneficial for toddlers to receive at least 60 minutes of active playtime daily, up to several hours. It’s important to include 30 minutes of structured activity time for younger children with activities like movement songs, dancing, chasing, etc.
- Ages 3-5 – Preschool children also need at least 60 minutes to several hours of active time a day.3 Initiating games like catch, tag, Simon Says, and hide-and-seek can help parents model active behavior themselves.
#2 Imaginative Play
This can be referred to as fantasy play, which involves both fantasy and make-believe. In imaginative play, children may pretend to be animals, magical creatures, aliens, or anything else they can dream up. Imaginative play helps develop language and social skills, creativity, and flexible thinking. Pair your child with our Dragon Kin that helps develop creativity in children through our lessons and affirmation to express themselves with confidence.
Best of all, imaginative play doesn’t require any tools or toys. You can encourage it anytime, anywhere. For example, try suggesting imaginative play when you’re waiting for food at a restaurant, standing in line, or driving.
You might suggest:
- Pretending to be animals or characters from a fairy tale
- Creating imaginary scenarios— “Let’s pretend we just landed from Mars and we don’t know what anything on Earth is!”
- Taking turns making up fantastic and silly stories
#3 Pretend Play
The term “pretend play” is often used interchangeably with “imaginative play.” However, there’s a small but important difference: Where imaginative play is all about fantasy, pretend play is focused on real-life situations and roles. Think pretend cooking, pretend school, or pretend grocery shopping.
Both forms of play help develop imagination and creativity, but some studies have found that children prefer play rooted in real activities.4
Pretend play can help children develop confidence and practice communication, cooperation, and negotiation. Play-acting real-world situations, like running a store or teaching school, also offers many opportunities for children to practice language, math, and literacy skills while having fun.
You can encourage pretend play in a variety of ways:
- Supply real-world items for play – Receipt books, old credit cards, your outdated checkbook, or cookware you aren’t using anymore can make pretend play feel more real and engaging.
- Provide dress-up clothes and accessories – Glasses, hats, jackets, shoes, gloves—take that pile of items meant for the thrift store and use it to stock a dress-up box. Your child will love acting out a variety of characters and professions.
- Join in and follow their lead – Whether you’re cast as a customer in a restaurant or a driver at the gas station, play along with enthusiasm. Enrich the scenario with suggestions as needed, but let your child’s ideas guide the play.
#4 Constructive Play
In constructive play, children build, create, manipulate, and design, combining fine motor skills, creativity, and imagination. It can be cooperative, solitary, or parallel play.
Constructive play provides a range of benefits, including:
- Developing spatial awareness, logic, and reasoning skills
- Encouraging experimentation, exploration, and discovery
- Promoting persistence, patience, and attention to detail
Constructive play is an area where parents can do a lot to start the fun. Be sure to provide the following:
- Blocks, Lego, or other building materials
- Access to paper, glue, safety scissors, hole punches, tape, craft sticks, clay, and other arts and crafts supplies
- Plenty of space (a clear table and nearby supplies)
- Unstructured time to create
#5 Games With Rules
Games with rules can be challenging for kids still learning how to play with others, but they also provide play-based learning opportunities for cognitive and emotional growth.
Games with rules can:
- Help children develop executive functions like planning, organizing, and self-control
- Teach children how to follow directions, take turns, and be good sports
- Enhance mathematical and logical skills, such as counting, sorting, and matching
Caregivers can encourage kids to play games with rules by:
- Providing board games, card games, memory games, etc.
- Teaching active rule-based games like Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, hopscotch, etc.
- Suggesting age-appropriate games that match their interests and abilities—games should be challenging without being frustrating.
If you aren’t sure what game to play, there are endless possibilities for games to play with children outside that can facilitate play-based learning.
Why Are Types of Play Important?
Each type of play has its role in helping your child build a healthy mind and body, along with the social development they need in the real world. And your child needs to experience every type of play because each reinforces and builds on the skills they’re developing with the others.
For example, pretend play helps build social skills, communication, and empathy. Meanwhile, physical play reduces stress and helps children regulate their emotions and behavior.2
In other words, pretend play builds a well-rounded social skillset, and physical play helps provide the self-control and emotional regulation needed to use it. Ultimately, children need all types of play to thrive.
How to Engage in Play With Your Child
As a caregiver, one of the best ways you can encourage play is by participating in a positive and respectful way. When you play with your child, remember to:
- Follow your child’s lead – Let them decide what to play and how to play.
- Avoid controlling or directing the play – Instead, be an active listener and observer supporting their ideas.
- Ask lots of open-ended questions during play – Simple prompts like “What are you making?” or “How does this work?” or “What do you think will happen next?” can help your child express their ideas and let you participate without directing play.
Above all, when it comes to parenting skills, don’t be afraid to be silly, creative, and adventurous with your child. We’ve developed Kinspiration Kits to provide guided activities to nurture open-ended and adult-guided play with your children. You’re their best example of learning that can also be playful, while teaching them expressive play, mindful play, and much more.
Spark Imagination With Slumberkins
Children need a balanced and varied play experience to grow and learn. This means exposing them to different types of play and letting them choose what they enjoy. It also means providing them with a safe, stimulating environment and a healthy balance of structured and unstructured play. Reading emotional learning books together is also a fun bonding experience that inspires children through stories.
If you need more ideas on how to support your child’s play, let Slumberkins be your guide. Check out our Kinspiration Kits for a wealth of engaging and unique activities to help your child develop holistically and have fun at the same time.
- Rymanowicz, Kylie. "The power of play – Part 1: Stages of play." Michigan State University Extension. 6 October, 2015. https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/the_power_of_play_part_1_stages_of_play
- Trawick-Smith, Jeffrey. "Physical play and motor development of young children: a review of literature and implications for practice." Eastern Connecticut State University Center for Early Childhood Education. https://www.easternct.edu/center-for-early-childhood-education/about-us/publications-documents/benefits-of-play-lit-review.pdf
- Clark, Jane et al. "Active Start: A statement of physical activity guidelines for children birth to five years." Society of Health and Physical Educators. January 2002. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/234635652_Active_Start_A_Statement_of_Physical_Activity_Guidelines_for_Children_Birth_to_Five_Years
- Taggart, Jessica et al. “The real thing: preschoolers prefer actual activities to pretend ones.” Developmental science vol. 21,3 (2018): e12582. doi:10.1111/desc.12582