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Oh, the many ways to play!

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The word “play” conjures images of a large variety of activities. Watching a 3-month-old play will look vastly different than a 2-year-old, which will look vastly different from a 7-year-old playing.

Each stage of playing, learning and discovering has a purpose in a child’s development. All children start with the very basic levels of play and work through to more complex and interactive play levels. Some children advance through the stages of play naturally as their language, fine motor and perspective-taking skills develop, while other children may need more direct assistance from adults to support their play skill development.

It is common for older children to engage in lower levels of play from time to time, even after mastering a higher level of play. For example, a child may have the ability to play restaurant with a group of four other peers (cooperative, socio-dramatic play), yet still occasionally prefer to build Legos alone (solitary, constructive play).

It is not important to memorize all the different types of play, however, it is important to be aware of the different ways to “play” and to have a basic understanding of where your child is in their development.

Types of Play

children play with wagonMotor/Physical Play

Frequently referred to as “rough and tumble play.” This type of play includes tickling, running, jumping, swinging, sliding or crashing into the bed.

Object Play

  • Sensorimotor play - Exploring objects through touch and movement.
    Examples include:
    • shaking rattles
    • mouthing and chewing toys
    • playing with musical instruments
    • playing with objects such as play-dough or water beads

  • Constructive play - Using objects to make or build something.
    Examples include:
    • stacking/building with blocks
    • putting together train tracks
    • building with recycled materials
    • building sand castles

  • Dramatic Play - Pretending with objects in play.

    Using real or realistic looking objects
    Examples include:
    • using a toy phone to call friends
    • sweeping with a toy broom
    • using plastic food or a toy bottle to feed a baby doll

    Using representational objects
    Using objects for other purposes. With this skill, children understand that objects can be substituted for each other.
    Examples include:
    • using a napkin as a diaper on a doll
    • using a towel as a cape
    • using a banana as a phone
    • using an old shoe box as a cash register

  • Role-Play - Using objects, materials, actions and language to imitate others during play. Language used in this stage can range from simply stating, “I’m Mommy. Feed baby!” to “Welcome to Paul’s Pizza Place. What’s your order?”
    Examples include:
    • pretending to be a zookeeper by using objects to feed stuffed animals
    • pretending to be a cook by making dinner
    • pretending to be the parent by feeding, bathing and/or changing a baby doll


Socio-dramatic Play

Pretend play with objects involving peers and/or adults. This type of play combines cooperative play with dramatic role-play.

Examples include:

  • playing house
  • playing grocery store
  • acting out a story with props
  • playing doctor
  • playing ice cream shop


boys in tunnelSocialization Within Play

Play with Adults:

Interactive, adult-led play, ranging from peek-a-boo to more involved finger play. This begins early on with infants and continues to evolve.

Examples include:

  • tickle play
  • peek-a-boo
  • blowing raspberries on their bellies
  • patty-cake
  • itsy-bitsy spider and other finger play games


Solitary Play:

When a child prefers to play alone. They may watch their peers play, but prefer to play away from the group on their own.

Examples include:

  • playing at a playground and watching other kids, but not engaging
  • playing on the edge of the sandbox alone
  • building blocks without sharing with peers


Parallel Play:

Plays close to other children, possibly even side-by-side, but without much interaction, exchange of materials or conversation. They may engage in unrelated play. This stage involves no and very little verbal and non-verbal communication between children.

Examples include:

  • Two children using the same blocks, but building their own towers with little to no interaction
  • Two children playing in a kitchen next to each other with one stirring a pot and the other feeding a baby


Associative Play:

Plays in a group with the same materials. They may imitate other’s actions, but verbal exchanges are limited and they do not work together to create. Children in this stage are interested in the engagement with a peer and less on a defined goal. This stage involves both verbal and non-verbal communication between peers, but not shared imagination (agreed upon theme, goal or plan).

Examples include:

  • Children running around in a group - they may randomly chase one child, then change direction or chase a different child with no specific plan, leader or end-goal
  • Two children building the same tower without a plan of what the tower is or when to stop building – just enjoying building and knocking it down
  • Two children cooking in the kitchen, chatting about what they are each making, without any specific role for either child


Cooperative Play:

Plays with another child with the same materials and defined roles. This stage starts as simply as rolling a ball back and forth and progresses to more elaborate play schemes. This stage requires children to imagine what other’s might be thinking, feeling and pretending, and agree on and engage in the same overall play scheme, rules and plan.

Examples include:

  • two children playing house with one being the “Mommy” and the other being the “baby”
  • group of children playing tag with one person being “it”
  • a small group of children playing super heroes with some children being the “good guys” and others the “bad guys,” with an agreed upon base
  • two children using blocks to make a rocket ship, using language to discuss the design