4 Important Types of Play

Mother and son baking together

We love talking about kids’ play almost as much as we love developing open-ended, play-focused toys. Because we believe play is so much more than entertainment. It’s a brain-boosting, vocabulary-building, social skill-teaching wonder. And each type of play comes with distinct benefits. Here are four of the most important types of play for your little one’s development and health!

Constructive Play

Constructive play is anything that involves kids building with toys like building blocks, play dough, and train sets. Of course, this type of play looks like it’s all fun and games, but it can also indicate whether kids are hitting developmental milestones. Babies between 14 and 20 months should be able to stack two blocks together, then four blocks by 17 - 24 months, and finally six blocks by 20 - 30 months. The development of these stacking skills help experts know that their hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills are developing as they should.

Constructive play has also been associated with kids’ performance in school, especially math classes. In one study, kids who created more complex structures around age 4 were more likely to have higher math scores later in life. This type of play has also been linked to improved spatial reasoning, stronger language development, and more creative problem solving.

Dramatic/ Pretend Play

Dramatic play happens when kids take on a “role” and act it out. It can be as simple as playing chef in their play kitchen or as fantastic as pretending to be a fairy astronaut in space. Either way, kids are benefitting from their made-up scenarios… especially when you join in and play with them! For younger toddlers, pretend play often looks like acting out aspects of adult life – even the ones that might seem dull to us like sorting mail or folding socks. This type of play helps them make sense of the adult world and build the skills to do it themselves one day.

For older kids, pretend play takes on endless possibilities. When they act out real-world scenarios (even with a little fantasy twist), they’re getting a chance to rehearse the social norms of everyday interactions (i.e. what do we say to the cashier at the store?).

Active Play

Running, jumping, hanging, climbing, etc. are all part of the “active” play category, and as you could probably guess, this type of play is critical for kids’ physical health. As they engage in high-energy activities (ideally outside), they’re not just strengthening muscles and getting exercise. They’re developing strong bone density and robust vestibular systems, i.e. the bodily system that’s responsible for balance and spatial awareness.

Getting active also helps kids improve their focus on academic tasks, makes them less likely to struggle with anxiety and depression, and helps them sleep better at night.

Social Play

All of these types of play can be combined with another critical type: social play.

Whether it’s playing tag, building a tower together, or playing house with a friend, social play adds a whole new set of social and emotional benefits as kids learn to interact with and enjoy their peers. For example, when kids pretend together, each pretend scenario comes with a kind of unspoken social contract as kids decide what they are going to be and how their make-believe world works. If they want to change something about the scenario, they’ll need to communicate and get their friends onboard.

But don’t worry if it seems like your toddler isn’t exactly interested in social play yet. Sociologist Mildred Parten broke down kids’ stages of play into six distinct categories, all of which involve different amounts of social interaction:

  • Unoccupied play occurs when very young babies observe the world around them with interest but don’t try to interact with it yet.
  • Independent play occurs when a child plays alone. It usually begins around age 2 and lasts through childhood.
  • Onlooker play is most common around ages 2 and 3 and occurs when kids simply observe other kids playing but don’t join in. Though it may seem like they’re not doing much, they’re actually soaking in a ton of information on social norms and how older kids play together.
  • Parallel play is also common around ages 2 and 3. In this case kids are playing near each other, often doing similar activities, but aren’t really playing with each other yet.
  • Associative play is similar to parallel play but with a little more social interaction as kids may talk to each other and influence each other’s activities (like making suggestions for their block tower or trying to copy a friend’s drawing). This type of play is most common between ages 3 and 4.
  • Cooperative play is what we’re likely thinking of when we picture traditional “social play.” Kids are truly playing with each other, not just near each other, and are interacting and communicating. This type of play emerges as kids’ favorite way to interact with their peers around age 4 or 5.

Each of these stages is important, so don’t worry if your little one is more of an onlooker than a “jump-on-in” type. They’re still picking up valuable social skills that will benefit them later when they do engage more in cooperative play!

Helping your kiddos get enough of each type of play is simple. As long as they aren’t spending too much time on screens or at scheduled events, they’ll naturally seek out these types of play on their own. Our job is simply to provide a few open-ended toys that support each type of play, give them plenty of free time to engage in play, and join in every now and then on the fun!