Play is a fun part of childhood and an important means for furthering children’s physical, cognitive and social-emotional development. You don’t have to tell a child how to play — it’s innate. Play can naturally take many forms, depending on the setting and the activities kids are engaging in. In some cases, children may be taking part in multiple forms of play all at once or jumping from one type to another.
Each type of play offers its own benefits that can help children have fun and learn in different ways. Whether they’re building muscle through physical play or expressing themselves through creative play, kids can grow and thrive from these fun activities. Let’s look at 10 types of play for child development.
1. Independent Play
One way we can distinguish types of play is by who is involved. Independent play, or solo play, is any type of play kids engage in on their own. This may involve using a slide at the park, putting together a puzzle at daycare or playing pretend on their own in the backyard. Even if a parent is nearby supervising the child or a peer is playing alongside but separate from the child, it’s still considered independent play as long as the child is not coordinating their activities with anyone else.
The earliest forms of play babies and toddlers take part in is solo play, and this continues to be an enjoyable and useful form of play throughout childhood. Independent play has some important benefits for kids. It can help them build creativity and problem-solving skills as they figure out how to entertain themselves. It can also help them discover more about themselves and enhance their self-image.
2. Group Play
Children can also enjoy playing with one or more other children or adults. This type of play is called social or group play. Group play could look like two children playing with dolls, a large group of children playing a game of red light, green light or a few kids chatting as they swing side by side on the swing set.
Group play gives children the opportunity to navigate social dynamics while they play. This can help further their development in some key ways. These interactions can teach important skills, like how to:
- Lead and follow
- Cooperate and share
- Navigate conflicts and make compromises
- Reject bullying and include others
- Solve problems
- Cope with disappointment
Group play on the playground can also help kids make friends and develop empathy, leading to a lifetime of meaningful relationships with others.
3. Structured Play
Another distinction we can make between two major categories of play has to do with the presence or lack of structure in the playtime activities. Structured play, also called guided play, includes organized activities with a specific purpose and set of parameters. Often, these activities are directed or at least supervised by adults. Some examples of structured play include two children playing a game of checkers, a group of kids playing a game of soccer or students taking part in an educational game at school.
Research shows that a balance of both structured play and free play is imperative to promote healthy learning and development. Structured play can benefit kids by helping them learn how to moderate their behavior, follow instructions and abide by rules. In the case of educational games, structured play can also be an effective way to teach specific concepts or skills.
Some play may be deemed semi-structured if it allows some room for creativity within certain boundaries. For example, a teacher may ask kids to provide their ideas for a game they’re making up together.
4. Free Play
Opposite structured play is free play. It can be all too easy to let free play get crowded out by a host of structured activities, but free play is vital to children’s development. Free play, or unstructured play, allows kids to self-direct their playtime. Adults may still supervise and impose some basic safety rules, but the way kids choose to have fun is entirely up to them. Free play can be independent or social in nature.
Either way, one of the most popular places for free play is a playground. A playground gives kids space and equipment to facilitate play but sets their imaginations free. They can come up with activities and games that parents and teachers would never have even thought of.
Unstructured play gives kids agency over how they spend their fun time. They may choose to spend the whole afternoon at the playground or recess period trying to master the monkey bars or move from pretending to be an archeologist in the sandbox to pretending to be blasting off in a rocket on the swingset. The point is that kids get to decide.
Free play offers some important benefits compared to structured play. It can help develop a child’s ability to think outside the box and help them grow in their sense of independence. Free play can also provide opportunities for kids to learn how to cooperate with others as they interact with minimal adult intervention.
5. Physical Play
Another way to label types of play is by the way kids engage their minds or bodies as they play. Some play is fun because of the physicality it involves. Physical play, motor play or active play — whatever you call it, this type of play is fun and beneficial to kids’ physical health and development. Most activities on a playground are active. Within this broad category, there is a variety of activities that engage kids’ bodies in different ways.
Some types of physical play, like jump roping, are mainly aerobic. When kids get their heart pumping on the playground, this can help them maintain a healthy weight and ward off disease. Kids can also work different muscle groups through physical play. For example, climbing can help kids build strength and coordination in their arms and legs.
Many children today do not get enough physical activity, making physical play more crucial than ever. Preschool-aged children should remain active throughout the day, and older children should get an hour of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Data shows the majority of children do not meet these standards. Even for kids who enjoy some days of active play, it is rarely a consistent part of their schedule. One study found that just 3.2% of children got enough physical activity every day of the week.
6. Sensory Play
All play involves a child’s senses in some manner, but some types of play are especially sensory-rich. This type of play is known as sensory play. Some of the best places to enjoy sensory play are in nature and on a sensory playground. Sensory playground equipment is designed to stimulate the senses to make playtime more engaging and educational, engaging children’s senses of:
- Hearing: Auditory equipment on the playground allows children to enjoy listening to and making sounds or music. Children are often told to keep volume levels down indoors, so outdoor play can be a great time for them to enjoy more unbridled auditory fun.
- Sight: For children with vision, this sense is a key way they process their environment. It can also be a great way of capturing their interest. A playground with exciting designs or a video game with visually interesting backgrounds and characters can keep kids interested.
- Touch: Babies and toddlers seem to want to touch everything, and with good reason — our sense of touch is a major way we learn about objects in our environment. Tactile play involves feeling a variety of textures. A child may play in water or feel different textures on an activity panel at the playground.
By encouraging sensory experiences through play, you can help kids explore their environment. Some sensory play activities are even called nature play if they involve the sights, sounds, smells or other sensory input of nature.
Sensory play can also be more inclusive for children who experience limitations when it comes to more physical forms of play. For children who have sensory processing disorders (SPD), practice with receiving and processing sensory input is an even more beneficial activity to incorporate into playtime.
7. Constructive Play
Some play is constructive in nature. This includes any activities where children are engineering or building something. One of the most common forms of constructive play is using building blocks. Other examples include using natural materials like sticks, sand or dirt to build something or putting together model sets.
Constructive play can help children improve their fine motor skills. This is because picking up and placing objects requires a certain finesse that takes some practice to develop. When children put things together following a set of instructions, this can also help them develop their ability to follow directions. When they’re constructing without directions, they can exercise their creativity and problem-solving skills.
8. Creative Play
As we’ve seen, lots of play types can exercise kids’ creativity. But some play is specifically focused on creative pursuits. This can include various forms of artistic expression, such as music, dance, storytelling, visual arts or drama. Any type of play that encourages kids to tap into their creative side can be deemed creative play.
A popular example that often comes to mind with creative play is arts and crafts, but note that not all arts and crafts projects give room for kids to be creative. If a child is simply following instructions to make something, this aligns more closely with constructive play. If you give children some freedom to put their own personal touch on a project, this can turn the activity into truly creative play.
Creative play may also mean thinking outside the box. You can help a child hone their creative skills by handing them a cardboard box and asking them to make it into something else or by having them make up their own game on the playground. Creative play can help children develop their inventive and artistic sides. This type of play can also increase kids’ self-esteem as they look with pride on their artistic creations or share their original ideas.
9. Fantasy Play
A popular category of play, especially for younger children, is fantasy play. Also called dramatic or pretend play, this is any type of activity where children use their imaginations. Usually around the age of 2, children start pretending while they play. Pretending helps children further their cognitive development, enhance their creativity and develop empathy as they practice trying on different personas. When children engage in fantasy play with others, they can also hone their social skills.
Some forms of fantasy play are more structured, as in the case of children putting on a play or assigning roles among themselves before starting a pretend scenario like “school,” “house” or “astronauts.” In many other cases, fantasy play happens spontaneously. A child going down the slide may suddenly choose to imagine they’re diving down a waterfall, for example. Fantasy play can make other types of play more fun and can help children fully engage their minds when they’re playing.
10. Competitive Play
Group play is often cooperative in nature, but sometimes, children enjoy some friendly competition instead. Competitive play is more common for older children, though children can start incorporating competitive elements into play from an early age. Two children may go down slides side by side, for example, to see who makes it to the ground first.
As children get older, one of the most common ways kids enjoy competitive play is through youth sports. Childhood development experts recommend parents wait until children are 8 years old to get them involved in competitive sports. At this age, most children are ready to handle the pressure that can come with competition. While some parents may worry about kids experiencing this pressure, it can be a healthy part of childhood development.
Whether through a board game or a basketball game, competition helps children learn some valuable lessons, such as:
- Taking turns
- Following rules
- Encouraging others
- Strategizing and problem-solving
- Learning from mistakes
- Persevering in the face of difficulty
- Coping with failure
All of these lessons can help kids in nearly every aspect of their lives. Competition can also increase kids’ self-confidence and, in the case of sports, can encourage kids to stay physically active.
Help Kids Engage in a Variety of Play Types With Equipment From Playworld
The connections between playing and development are strong. Children can learn all sorts of lessons and grow in important ways, all while they’re having a great time. To encourage these benefits, you should promote varied forms of play.
Playgrounds are one of the best places for kids to engage in a wide range of play types. Consider creating a playground for the children in your community that will help them enjoy solo and group play, structured and unstructured play, physical play, sensory play, constructive play, creative play, pretend play and competitive play — all in one special place. Request a quote from Playworld to get started.