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Ways to Play

Children explore and interact with the world around them through play. To help them make the most of their playtime it's important to also consider the cognitive and social stages of their development. Different types of play are needed for them to thrive socially, physically, and intellectually. There are many styles and ways to play. Here are some of the categories or types of activities kiddos engage in during play:

Physical Play

When children engage in physical play you may see them actively move their bodies in big ways (like jumping, dancing, bike riding and ball play), focus small movements on fine-motor practice (like coloring, cutting, and manipulating loose parts) and maybe even join in some playful aggression also known as ‘rough-and-tumble’ play (like play fighting with friends or siblings).

This sort of play helps to develop their muscle strength and coordination. It offers them a chance to exercise so their bodies can grow and thrive in a healthy way.

Constructive Play (Playing with Objects)

This category of play involves exploring the world through playing with objects. It starts as soon as babies can grasp on to something to see how it feels and behaves. As they investigate you'll see them do things like mouthing/biting, rotating while looking, rubbing/stroking, hitting and dropping. You may see toddlers arrange objects until little-by-little their play turns into sorting and classifying activities. By preschool you may see building, making and constructing behaviors turn up. Constructive play becomes more complex as children grow. As they continue to explore, discover patterns, and problem solve they gain confidence in handling objects, coming up with new ideas, and working with bigger concepts like math and science.

Expressive Play

This type of play involves using symbolic representation to make and communicate meaning. Through sounds/language, making sounds/music, and making marks/drawing, feelings and emotions can be expressed during play. Studies have shown it develops creativity, symbolic communication and early literacy.

Fantasy/Dramatic Play

For this type of play, also known as pretend play, children create and imagine beyond their world. You may see them re-enact situations, experiment with new words and numbers, and express their emotions during play. As they use fantasy to stretch their imaginations they learn to think in abstract ways. This category of play has been shown to develop reasoning skills, social skills, language, and emotion regulation.

Competitive Play (Games with Rules)

Little ones are motivated by making sense of the world around them so it's no surprise that they would be interested in rules. When play is competitive, whether it's alone or with others, it is organized by agreed goals, assigned roles, and established rules. In a group, children make the shift from self-center to getting the importance social interaction and rules. Young children start with physical games (like tag, hide-and-seek, and playing catch) and learn a ton of social skills like sharing, taking turns, and understanding others' point of view. As they mature, increasingly elaborate games and activities (like electronic/computer games and various sporting activities) emerge.

Digital Play

Kiddos playing video games or computer-based learning programs are engaging in digital/virtual play. This is an absorbing form of solitary play without any social back-and-forth or consequences. Too much of this form of play can negatively impact executive functioning (like memory, flexible thinking, and self-control) and social skills.

Sensory Play

This type of play activates and stimulates a child’s senses. This includes the five senses (touch, smell, sight, sound and taste) plus movement, balance, and spatial awareness. Babies and very young children learn about the world around them through their senses. Every new experience creates connections in the brain that encourages the development of language, motor skills, and cognitive growth. This type of play allows for increasingly complex thoughts and tasks. It builds observational skills, abstract thinking, and encourages experimentation. It can also foster mindfulness, social interaction, and peer engagement.


Exploring the Benefits of Sensory Play for Children. (n.d.)

Ginsburg KR; American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Communications; American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds.Pediatrics. 2007;119(1):182–191pmid:17200287

Whitebread, David & Neale, Dave & Jensen, Hanne & Liu, Claire & Solis, Lynneth & Hopkins, Emily & Hirsh-Pasek, Kathy & Zosh, Jennifer. (2017). The role of play in children's development: a review of the evidence. 10.13140/RG.2.2.18500.73606.

Yogman M, Garner A, Hutchinson J, et al. The power of play: a pediatric role in enhancing development in young children. Pediatrics. 2018;142(3):e20182058. doi:10.1542/peds.2018-2058


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