The 16 Types of Play in Early Childhood (2023)

What is play and why are the different types of play and stages so important for a child’s overall development?

What is Play?

Play is the medium through which children explore and experience their world.

A child’s overall physical, emotional, cognitive and social development depends on play.

For a child, playing and learning are the same thing. Everything kids learn in the preschool years, they learn through play.

Some characteristics of play:

  • Play is intrinsically motivated and spontaneous
  • It is focused on the process rather than the product
  • Play is carried out as if the activity were “real” and driven by imagination
  • It is mostly free of externally imposed rules
  • It is done merely for enjoyment

Children learn to understand the world and how it works through play. Their experience of reality is reflected through play.

During play children are:

  • Thinking
  • Solving problems
  • Developing memory
  • Planning and investigating
  • Developing language skills
  • Concentrating
  • And learning many more skills…

How Many Types of Play are There?

What are the characteristics and types of play in children?

The 16 Types of Play in Early Childhood (1)

It is difficult to say the exact number as there are many types of play that have been identified by various child development theorists.

A distinction can be made, however, between stages of play and types of play.

The stages of play are based on the level of social interaction during play (such as solitary or social play) or on the main characteristic of play (such as symbolic play or play that involves games with rules).

The types of play are based on the specific type of activity involved such as language play or constructive play).

There are roughly 3-5 general stages of play that have been identified, but many more types of play. These are all explained below.

All types of play are important and, although children progress naturally through stages, they tend to add and integrate some types of play, rather than stop one type and start a new type.


The 16 Types of Play in Early Childhood (2)

Types of Play in Early Childhood

Here is an overview of all the stages and types of play in child development, according to the theorists.

In the book “The Young Child in Context: A psycho-social perspective“, Marike de Witt has a comprehensive list of the various theorists and the types of play they identified.

Solitary Play

Mildred Parten identified four main social stages of play – solitary, parallel, associative and cooperative play

During the first stage, known as solitary play (or non-social play), children play with toys on their own and do not notice or concern themselves with other children or what they are doing.

Parallel Play

When children engage in parallel play (Parten’s second stage of play), they may play with similar toys such as building blocks, but they are playing next to each other rather than together.

They are not interacting but are happy to be playing near another child.

Children also engage in onlooker play, where they watch the other child play but do not join in or play themselves.

Associative Play

During associative play (Parten’s third stage of play), a pair or small group of children play together, but with little cooperation and negotiation.

They share toys but are each playing their own game and not working towards a shared goal.

Cooperative Play

Cooperative play (Parten’s fourth stage of play) may include a game with rules or a shared goal, such as building a tower together. Children plan, negotiate and assign roles as they play.

Practice Play

Jean Piaget identified three stages of play – practice play, symbolic play and games with rules.

Practice play is about exploring materials and toys to “see what they do.” It involves simple, repetitive movements, sometimes also without toys.

Some theorists also refer to unoccupied play, which tends to be comprised of random movements without a clear purpose, although it is still a part of play.

Symbolic Play

Piaget’s second stage of play, called Symbolic play, is when children use an object, action or idea to represent something.

(Video) The importance of play

They could use a block, for example, to pretend they are on a telephone call.

Games with Rules

The last stage of play according to Piaget is more structured and requires following rules and norms to reach a goal when playing alone or with a group.

Sara Smilansky’s four stages are similar to Piaget’s stages above – functional (similar to practice play), constructive, dramatic (similar to symbolic play) and games with rules (same).

Constructive Play

Smilansky described constructive play as the stage in which children manipulate objects in order to create something.

The 16 Types of Play in Early Childhood (3)

Examples would be stacking blocks, building a fort or making a machine with cardboard boxes.

The following types of play were noted by various theorists, depending on the angle from which they studied play. These categories are based on the characteristics of the play or on how they develop the child.

The types of play that follow are more categories, added by researchers such as Garvey, Sarafino and Armstrong.

Ritual Play

This is the rhythmic repeating of sounds or words. Young children do it purely for enjoyment and often use exaggerated body movements.

Language Play

This kind of play involves making up nonsense words and rhyming words. It starts before a child learns to converse.

Fantasy Play

Also known as pretend play, dramatic play or make-believe play, this is the highest form of play and involves “acting out” ideas using objects and carrying out roles.

The 16 Types of Play in Early Childhood (4)

An example of fantasy/pretend play would be dressing up and pretending to be firemen or playing shop.

Symbolic play, where objects are used to represent things, is also a type of fantasy play.

Sensory-Stimulating Play

Sensory play involves stimulating the senses and experiencing sounds, rhythms, tastes, textures, smells, colours, shapes and movements.

Babies, for example, want to touch everything or place objects in their mouths.

(Video) A Taxonomy of Play Types by Bob Hughes (Playwork)

Investigative (Exploratory) Play

At this stage, the child wants to see what happens when materials are manipulated. An example would be moving on from tasting blocks to stacking them (as they move through the stages of block play) and seeing what happens.

Competitive Play

This refers to games with rules and rituals. Children’s play becomes more structured at this stage and may involve multiple players.

Physical (Motor) Play

This refers to play that is purely physical in nature, such as skipping, climbing a jungle gym or riding a tricycle.

Expressive (Creative) Play

Expressive play is about creating art, music or even writing to express one’s creativity.

Why is Play Important for Your Child’s Development?

The role of parenting is to set the stage for your child’s holistic development. The best way to do this is to encourage and make opportunities for regular play.

The 16 Types of Play in Early Childhood (5)

There are benefits of different types of play in early childhood and parents can, therefore, encourage a variety of play experiences as well as different types of play materials.

Play develops the whole child. There are four main areas of development:

  • Physical
  • Cognitive (Intellectual)
  • Emotional
  • Social

Through play, each of these areas are stimulated and developed right from birth and through the early childhood years.

Here is an overview of how your child grows and develops through play. Some of these benefits of play are listed in the book mentioned above by Marike de Witt.


Physical activity is important for developing motor skills and when a child plays it is often physical. Play develops a child’s sensorimotor skills and allows a release of energy too. The following areas are developed through play:

  • Muscle tone and development
  • Fine motor skills
  • Fluidity of movements
  • Specific gross motor skills such as ball skills, hopping, etc.
  • Health and fitness
  • Developing the senses
  • Coordination and balance
  • Physical strength


Play is responsible for building a child’s intellectual ability. Through play children learn:

  • Concepts
  • Concentration
  • Creativity
  • Thinking skills such as sorting, classifying, etc.
  • Knowledge
  • Language and communication
  • Problem solving
  • Memory
  • Perceptual skills
  • Listening skills


Emotional development is as important as physical or intellectual development. Children gain emotional intelligence through play and learn about themselves and their feelings. Play usually is a positive experience, through which a child learns:

  • Self-confidence
  • Trust
  • Expressing feelings in a healthy way
  • Understanding his positive and negative emotions
  • Self-control
  • Competence (through success at play)
  • Facing conflicts and fears


Play is a social activity and the main way children pick up social skills and learn to interact with their parents, families and peers. Children learn about:

  • Appropriate social norms
  • Cooperation – sharing and taking turns
  • Conflict resolution
  • Empathy and sympathy
  • Leading and following
  • Social language skills
  • Rules and responsibilities
  • Participating in a group
  • Respecting others’ possessions

Examples of Play During the First 9 Years

Here is a brief list showing typical play during the various stages of childhood, as shown in the book “The Young Child in Context: A psycho-social perspective“, by Marike de Witt.

(Video) BestStart's 16 Areas of Play | Introduction

They are rough guidelines and may vary slightly from child to child.


  • Oral activities – breastfeed and make other lip movements
  • Make and listen to sounds
  • Play with breath and saliva
  • Do mouth exercises
  • Play with body parts, mother’s hair, buttons, etc.
  • Play games such as “Where are you? There you are!”
  • Play with objects


  • Imitate their mother
  • Explore their own and their mother’s body
  • Start playing hide-and-seek games
  • Pick up and drop, stack and bash down, fill and empty
  • Experiment with movement
  • Start fantasy play e.g. with stuffed animals


  • Collect objects
  • Engage in sensorimotor activities
  • Imitate affection that is modelled in the family, towards people and objects
  • Show some aggression in play e.g. imitating a superhero (fantasy becomes reality)
  • Play games about disappearing and reappearing
  • May follow a play ritual for security e.g. building a puzzle when dropped off at school each day
  • Roleplay (e.g. pretending to be a parent or an animal)


  • Express aggression through games (e.g. superheroes, chasing monster games, hiding from “bad” guys)
  • Play hide-and-seek and hiding/burying games
  • Have a better understanding of fantasy and reality (e.g. pretends to be a bear or plays with a toy bear, does not think he is one)
  • Fantasy play includes broader topics outside the home and family e.g. the fire station
  • Doctor-nurse type games arise from body curiosity
  • Male and female gender roles are emphasized in play
  • Socialize more with others
  • Love to dress up
  • Test physical skills in games


  • Often play games referred to above, or begin playing games with rules
  • Engage in fantasy play, but with a clear understanding of fantasy and reality
  • Act out stressful situations or feelings of anxiety through play
  • Roleplay becomes more intricate and can also be carried out through puppet shows or staged stories
  • A fascination with romance begins through chasing girls/boys or acting out weddings or fairy tales


  • Fantasy play can continue past the age of 9 but is more elaborate and the same plot may continue over several days
  • Play can be gory and dramatic
  • Need frequent physical play and have boundless energy
  • More advanced play such as skating or ball games – can participate in team sports
  • Romance is joked about
  • Themes such as bravery, injuries and attractiveness emerge in play

Parents’ and Teachers’ Role in Play

Often, an adult’s role in children’s playtime is just to be present. At other times, it is to intervene and provide opportunities or support learning through play.

The 16 Types of Play in Early Childhood (6)

When young toddlers play they will often feel more secure knowing their parent is nearby. As they grow older, they will rely on a teacher’s presence at school and later on will not need this security anymore.

Here are some tips for how to best support children through play, according to Joanne Hendrick, author of the book “Total Learning: Developmental Curriculum for the Young Child“.

  • Ensure age-appropriate activities
  • Allow sufficient time for play every day, indoors and especially outdoors
  • Set up a safe environment in order to minimize constantly saying “no”
  • create a positive learning environment at home
  • Verbalize what the child is doing to promote language development. “That’s a cool ramp you made. Now the cars can drive up into the garage!
  • Only expect children over 3 to share toys
  • Allow children to enjoy the process rather than tell them what to do (e.g. build their own tower and draw their own picture).
  • Ask frequent questions to promote problem-solving
  • Allow children to explore freely and get dirty during play
  • Provide stimulating educational toys and equipment
  • Provide clothes and accessories for dress-up play but let your child play when they choose and do not interfere in the game
  • Focus on the enjoyment of the game, not only on winning
  • Introduce some new games and activities and teach the rules
  • Play games that teach mathematical skills, early reading skills, etc.

How You Can Teach Your Preschooler through Play

The wonderful thing about play is you can be engaged in any play activity whatsoever and your child will be learning multiple skills. For example:

  • Sing a nursery rhyme and your child will be developing listening skills, auditory perception, rhythm, speaking skills, pre-reading skills, etc.
  • Make some playdough and your child will be learning mathematical skills (measurement), fine motor control, creativity, problem-solving, etc.

If your child is already attending preschool, the time they are at home with you is still a time of major learning. Children don’t stop learning when they get home.

You can take advantage of that fact.

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The 16 Types of Play in Early Childhood (7)
(Video) BestStart's 16 Areas of Play | Manipulative Resources


What are the 16 play types? ›

There are 16 different play types. These are: Communication Play, Creative Play, Deep Play, Dramatic Play, Exploratory Play, Fantasy and Imaginary Play, Locomotor Play, Mastery Play, Object Play, Recapitulative Play, Role Play, Rough and Tumble Play, Social Play, Socio-Dramatic Play, and Symbolic Play.

What are the types of play in early childhood? ›

Children learn and develop through different types of play.
  • Physical play. Physical play can include dancing or ball games. ...
  • Social play. By playing with others, children learn how to take turns, cooperate and share. ...
  • Constructive play. ...
  • Fantasy play. ...
  • Games with rules.

Who came up with the 16 types of play? ›

In playwork, in the UK, we most commonly use a model with the 16 play types identified and outlined by Bob Hughes. This information sheet explores the 16 play types – including creative play, rough and tumble, deep play and social play.

What are the 10 types of play? ›

Parenting10 Different Types of Play and How They Help Kids Learn
  • Unoccupied play. This kind of play may not seem like play to most adults and onlookers at all. ...
  • Solitary or independent play. ...
  • Onlooker play. ...
  • Physical play. ...
  • Constructive play. ...
  • Parallel play. ...
  • Associative play. ...
  • Cooperative play.
27 Sept 2019

How many types of play are there? ›

In fact, one playtime can include different play types. For example, playing pirates can include rough and tumble play, symbolic play, dramatic play, communication play, social play, fantasy play and imaginative play! Encourage children to try different ways to play to see which they like.

What are the 12 features of play? ›

  • Bruce's 12 Features Of Play.
  • Children Use. Experiences.
  • Children. Create Rules.
  • Children. Use Symbols.
  • Children Choose. To Play.
  • Children Rehearse. Their Future.
  • Children Play. Alone Sometimes.
  • Children. Pretend.

What are the 7 main play categories? ›

The Major Types of Play

The types of play include physical, dramatic, sensory, nature, music and art, and age-appropriate play. Children need the various types of play in order to support and facilitate meaningful learning opportunities as they develop language, motor, social, emotional, and cognitive abilities.

What type of play is most common among preschool kids? ›

Cooperative Play

Typically starting between four and five years of age, this is the predominant type of play in groups of kids this age and up, or in younger preschoolers who have older siblings or have been around a lot of children. This stage of play can encompass many different types of play activities.

How many stages of play are there? ›

As children get older, the way they interact with other people during play will change. These changes are called “stages of play”. There are 6 stages of play.

Who identified 6 types of play? ›

Researcher Mildred Parten

What are the 9 play schemas? ›

There are nine most common play schemas: Connection, Enclosure, Enveloping, Orientation, Positioning, Rotation, Trajectory, Transforming, and Transporting.

What are the 9 characteristics of play? ›

Play can be distinguished from other behaviours by the observation of the following nine characteristic:
  • Self- directed.
  • Adventurous or risky.
  • Voluntary or self-chosen.
  • Meaningful.
  • Pleasurable.
  • Active.
  • Symbolic.
  • Process orientated.

What are the 6 types of play development? ›

6 Stages of Play and Why They are Important for your child's...
  • UNOCCUPIED PLAY (Birth – 3 months)
  • SOLITARY PLAY (Birth – 2 years)
  • PARALLEL PLAY (2+ years)
  • ASSOCIATIVE PLAY (3-4 years)
6 Feb 2020

What are the 8 play personalities? ›

According to research by Dr. Stuart Brown, there are eight different types of play personalities: the joker, the kinesthete, the explorer, the competitor, the director, the collector, the artist/creator, and the storyteller.

What are the types of play in education? ›

Given below is a list of 11 types of play for child development.
  • Unoccupied Play. ...
  • Parallel Play. ...
  • Associative Play. ...
  • Solitary (Independent) Play. ...
  • Dramatic/Fantasy Play. ...
  • Onlooker Play. ...
  • Competitive Play. ...
  • Cooperative Play.
7 Dec 2019

What are the 10 benefits of play? ›

The 10 Benefits of Play
  • It Builds a Healthy Body. ...
  • It Builds a Healthy Brain. ...
  • It Teaches Emotional Intelligence and Boosts Self-Esteem. ...
  • Play Builds Healthy Friendships and Romantic Relationships. ...
  • It Forges a Healthy Parent–Child Relationship. ...
  • It Teaches Cooperation. ...
  • Play Teaches Problem Solving. ...
  • It Stimulates Creativity.
8 Sept 2018

What are the 5 qualities of play? ›

Here are five elements essential to meaningful play that create those rich memories we treasure:
  • Children make their own decisions. ...
  • Children are intrinsically motivated. ...
  • Children become immersed in the moment. ...
  • Play is spontaneous, not scripted. ...
  • Play is enjoyable.

What are the 3 main areas of play development? ›

Jean Piaget identified three stages of play – practice play, symbolic play and games with rules.

What are 4 reasons for play? ›

Here are 10 reasons why it is so important:
  • Play lays the foundation for literacy. ...
  • Play is learning. ...
  • Play encourages adults to communicate with the children in their lives. ...
  • Play gives children the chance to be spontaneous. ...
  • Play gives children choice. ...
  • Play gives children space.

What are the basic skills in play? ›

Fundamental movement skills are basic movements such as throwing, kicking,running, jumping, hopping and catching. Fundamental sport skills are these movement skills applied to a sport situation: for example, kicking a soccer ball, running a sprint, jumping up for a basketball rebound, catching a baseball.

What are the 4 types of plays? ›

4 Types of Play
  • Functional Play. Functional play is playing simply to enjoy the experience. ...
  • Constructive Play. As the name suggests, this play involves constructing something (building, drawing, crafting, etc.). ...
  • Exploratory Play. ...
  • Dramatic Play.
31 Jul 2019

What are the 4 stages of play? ›

Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development has four stages of play: functional play, constructive play, symbolic/fantasy play, and games with rules.

What type of play is appropriate for a preschool age child? ›

Play is essential for preschooler development. Different kinds of play help preschoolers develop and learn in many different ways: Dramatic and pretend play: preschoolers use games like dress-ups to act out confusing or scary scenarios, try out different roles, and explore emotions.

Which type of play is most common for 3 year olds? ›

Associate Play (3-4 Years)

A child might be doing an activity related to the kids around him, but might not actually be interacting with another child. For example, kids might all be playing on the same piece of playground equipment but all doing different things like climbing, swinging, etc.

How is play used in early childhood education? ›

Play allows a child to learn the skills of negotiation, problem solving, sharing, and working within groups. Children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace and discover their own interests during play. Unstructured play may lead to more physical movement and healthier children.

How many areas of play are there? ›

Learn about the 16 key areas of play and how they stimulate early childhood learning. Learn about the 16 key areas of play and how they stimulate early childhood learning.

What is Piaget's theory of play? ›

Piaget viewed play as integral to the development of intelligence in children. His theory of play argues that as the child matures, their environment and play should encourage further cognitive and language development.

What is Vygotsky's theory of play? ›

Vygotsky believed that children are able to engage in pretend play because they start to separate the visual field (what can be seen) from the field of sense (what can be implied), or meaning.

Who created the 5 stages of play? ›

Stages of play is a theory and classification of children's participation in play developed by Mildred Parten Newhall in her 1929 dissertation. Parten observed American preschool age (ages 2 to 5) children at free play (defined as anything unrelated to survival, production or profit).

What are the 17 schemas? ›

List of Schemas
  • Emotional Deprivation: The belief and expectation that your primary needs will never be met. ...
  • Abandonment: ...
  • Mistrust/Abuse: ...
  • Defectiveness: ...
  • Vulnerability: ...
  • Dependence/Incompetence: ...
  • Enmeshment/Undeveloped Self: ...
  • Failure:

What are Montessori schemas? ›

Schemas are patterns of repeated behaviour that allow children to explore and develop their play through their thoughts and ideas. As an adult, you can learn about your children's interests by observing their play. By stepping back and watching, you may notice how apparent some of these schemas are.

What are the 5 types of schemas? ›

There are many types of schemas, including object, person, social, event, role, and self schemas.

What are the three levels of play? ›

Three Stages of Developmental Play: Sensory Play, Projective Play and Role Play. Understanding the stages of play also allows us to better identify any gaps in development.

What are the components of play? ›

The author proffers a definition of play that takes into consideration its dynamic character, posits six basic elements of play (anticipation, surprise, pleasure, understanding, strength, and poise), and explores some of their emotional, physical, and intellectual dimensions.

What are the three functions of play? ›

In this review we consider the nature and possible developmental functions of three forms of play: pretend, social, and locomotor.

What are the main features of play explain? ›

Play can be active, and during active play, children physically interact with their environment, with different materials, and with others. Active play helps a child develop various kinds of motor skills, the most basic being fine motor skills and gross motor skills.

What are the 7 parts of play? ›

  • Balancing. Balancing, which occurs in many types of play, is essential to the development of reading and writing skills, as well as problem-solving. ...
  • Sliding. ...
  • Brachiating. ...
  • Spinning. ...
  • Climbing. ...
  • Swinging. ...
  • Sensory Development.
14 May 2018

What are the 6 types of social play? ›

There are 6 stages of play during early childhood - all of which are important for all areas of development.
  • Unoccupied play – 0-3 months.
  • Solitary play – 0-2 years.
  • Onlooker play – 2 years.
  • Parallel play – 2-3 years.
  • Associate play – 2-3 years.
  • Cooperative/social play – 4-6 years.

What are the 6 Features of play? ›

  • PLOT The arrangement of events or incidents on the stage. ...
  • CHARACTER The agents of the plot. ...
  • THEME The reason the playwright wrote the play. ...
  • LANGUAGE “Vivid characters” (6) facing and overcoming. ...
  • RHYTHM The heart of the play. ...
  • SPECTACLE Everything that is seen or heard on stage.

What are the 5 stages of play? ›

Each stage should begin around:
  • Unoccupied play: 0-3 months.
  • Solitary play: 0-2 years.
  • Onlooker play: 2 years.
  • Parallel play: 2+ years.
  • Associative play: 3-4 years.
  • Cooperative play: 4+ years.


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