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Types of Play and Child Development

This article is an excerpt from my upcoming book Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood.

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The Concept of Play

At its core, play is one of the most important needs of a child. In fact, play is so important that it is recognized by the United Nations as a right, similar to shelter and education.

Play is loosely defined as intrinsically motivated, child-directed, spontaneous, voluntary, enjoyable and often with no intended outcome.

Dr. Peter Gray explains it best when he says, “Play is a concept that fills our minds with contradictions when we try to think deeply about it. It is serious, yet not serious; trivial, yet profound; and imaginative and spontaneous, yet bound by rules. Play is not real, it takes place in a fantasy world; yet it is about the real world and helps children cope with that world. It is childish, yet it underlies many of the greatest achievements of adults.”

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Most importantly, play is how kids learn. It is how they develop the cognitive, social and emotional skills that allow them to succeed in all things.

From an evolutionary perspective, play is how animals and humans practice skills needed for them to survive and thrive in their environment. German philosopher and naturalist, Karl Groos, wrote a book discussing play in animals and humans, and he notes that humans have more to learn and, as such, naturally spend more time playing than any other species.

Play is also not only defined by the activities that are involved, but also by the underlying attitudes of the people involved.

Unfortunately, our society today has shifted in such a way that children have been slowly guided away from having enough time for real play or coerced into “playing” in ways that do not spark joy.

Categories of Play

Experts often talk about six categories of play that are universal to all kids no matter their location or culture. It is important to note that these categories are not bound by sharply defined lines, and as such you will likely witness more than one type of play happening at once.

Physical Play

All mammals need to develop fit bodies and have the ability to move in a coordinated way. Physical play is when kids are using and developing gross motor skills by doing activities such as running, jumping, wrestling, spinning and climbing. This type of play is what allows children to develop control of their bodies, physical coordination, proper muscle tone, core strength and courage.

Constructive Play

Given our opposable thumbs it’s no wonder why constructing and building is a type of play that human children gravitate towards. This type of play can include anything that involves building, creating, constructing and often includes creation of tools and shelters (think digging with sticks or making a fort out of couch cushions).

Language Play

You can witness this type of play when you hear a cooing baby who is playing with making different sounds, or with the toddler who is laughing hysterically as they begin to play with rhymes or make up funny nonsensical words. Eventually this play allows them to fully understand their native language

Dramatic or Pretend Play

This is when children are experimenting with different social roles, including dress up, make believe and imaginary play. Dramatic or pretend play is unique to humans as we are capable of thinking beyond what is actually present–this quality is what allows us to invent and reason. This type of play also encourages language development.

Games with Formal Rules

This is one of the more common types of play witnessed in U.S. culture. These are games with explicit rules that can be explained in words to others. They can be competitive in nature like organized sports, or games like chess.

Social Play

Social play is two or more children playing together and can span across any other type of play listed above. Children often gravitate towards social play. This is where kids begin learning to negotiate and compromise. In this type of play they start to learn about other’s needs and wants, and how to navigate a variety of situations involving people other than themselves. Social play is how kids learn to get along with others. A crucial skill that cannot be taught, only learned through experience.

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Types of Play Especially Relevant to Our Current Society

Adding to these overarching types of play, it is important to note a few other types of play that need to be explained and encouraged, especially in our society today.

Sensory Play

Children develop cognitive skills by using their senses. Ideally when kids play they are combining the sense of touch with other senses such as vision, hearing, smell, and taste. Experiences and toys that provide kids with multi-sensory feedback are best for development.

This doesn’t mean toys that are overstimulating to the senses–toys that light up, talk, sing, flash, or move on their own are very often overstimulating.

It’s important to understand that overstimulation is NOT good for kids, no matter the age. Overstimulation of the senses causes things like sleep issues, crankiness, withdrawal from face to face interaction, crying, tantrums, aggression, and hyperactivity. It’s literally that the senses are on overload and don’t know what to do.

Keep in mind the 90/10 rule for toys. Your child should be doing 90% of the work and the toy should only be doing 10% of the work.

It’s important to recognize that all the sensory play posts and ideas for sensory bins that are sweeping Facebook mom’s groups and blasted all over Instagram accounts, while nice, are a symptom of a larger issue.

Have you ever considered why the emergence of sensory bins or focus on sensory play? We have whole social media accounts, followed by thousands, solely dedicated to showing parents different sensory bin setups.

This is, in part, due to the lack of time spent in play, especially in outdoor play. Outdoor play is one of the absolute best multi sensory experiences you can provide your child, and yet, kids today are spending significantly less time outside. Due to this, children need to specifically be exposed to “sensory play” because they are missing out on natural multi-sensory experiences found in nature.

Risky Play

Children have an innate need for risk taking–and research indicates that children who are encouraged to take risks at a younger age are able to better manage risk once they have gained more independence. It also shows that lack of ample opportunity to take risks may increase fear and inappropriate aggression, as well as limit the ability to cope with stress. All of which translate into an increase in physical and mental health issues.

Dr. Peter Gray writes in his book Free to Learn that “Over the past 60 years we have witnessed, in our culture, a continuous, gradual, but ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play freely, without adult control, and especially in their opportunities to play in risky ways.  Over the same 60 years we have also witnessed a continuous, gradual, but ultimately dramatic increase in all sorts of childhood mental disorders, especially emotional disorders.”

Some ways you may see kids engaging in risky play are playing at heights, running at high speeds, using things in ways that aren’t intended (climbing the couch, going up the slide instead of down), rolling down hills, climbing rocks, walking on anything that requires balance, spinning in circles, jumping off anything and everything.

These days parents are often seen hovering over kids at the playground, or even worse, following them up into the playground equipment. Children aren’t scaling rocks and climbing trees. They aren’t jumping from heights that are *just* a little too high.

Funny enough, injuries haven’t decreased–quite the opposite. Why? Because children are not testing their bodies enough, and are therefore more likely to get hurt because they are grossly unaware of their physical limits.

We need to shift our mindset. These are things we should be encouraging our kids to do. Take a breath, step away from the top of the slide and let them take healthy and age appropriate risks.

Understanding the Difference between Structured Play and Unstructured Play

An important point for parents and caregivers to understand is that not all play is the same. Kids need to participate in both structured and unstructured play, with unstructured play often being the goal.

Structured Play

Structured play is often adult led (especially at the younger years) and it can include a goal that requires problem solving or critical thinking of some sort.  Some examples would be putting together a LEGO set using the directions, attending an enrichment class, playing a team sport, engaging in a card game or working on a puzzle. Even a game of tag or hide and seek would be considered structured play.

Overall, this is often where children in our society end up the most. This is due to an increase in parental supervision and a gross lack of completely free time for kids today.

Unstructured Play

Unstructured play or sometimes called free play, is not directed by an adult, and ideally should be away from direct adult supervision. This type of play is completely centered around, and led by, the child. This type of play is really where the magic happens. Engaging in unstructured free play allows for the development of creativity, imagination, emotional regulation, and problem-solving skills.

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