Types of Play and Child Development

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.”

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.

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.

Physical Play

Physical play is when kids are using and developing gross motor skills by doing activities such as running, jumping, wrestling, spinning and climbing.

Constructive Play

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.

Dramatic or Pretend 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.

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