Types of Play and How they Help Children Develop

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A couple of years ago, I wrote an article about the
extinction of play in terms of what everyone considers play and how play has changed over the years. As early childhood professionals we know and understand that play is a child’s vehicle to learning and exploring. We must get others to better understand how the role of play contributes to a child’s development.  

Child-initiated play is becoming less valued and even extinct.  It is being replaced by social media, technology, over enrollment in activities and even teacher directed learning. There are different types of play that we should be advocating for as early childhood professionals.

  1. Functional Play:  As a teacher I used to show my children how to play. They were unsure how to play in the housekeeping center and pretend that objects were things, and that anyone could be a dog, a cat, or even a doctor. I modeled for them how to use objects like an Irion, or a coffee pot. Sometimes I think we forget that children need to be shown how to do things and what things are and or how to pretend and use their imagination, because they don’t have to anymore, they are engaged in other things that entertain them. 
  2. Constructive Play: This can be included in many aspects of the classroom, but a good example would be the block center.  When a child is using their imagination to build something new they are constructing something and trying to make sense of the world. I would make sure to take pictures of anything a child made, a building, a roadway, a book and even playdough creations. 
  3. Symbolic Play: This is when a child uses one object for something else.  For example they may push a block for a car, use an umbrella for a walking cane and or a chair for a wheel chair. 
  4. Games with Rules: Teachers usually make these up like how to put together a puzzle, or how to play a game.  But children after using imagination can make up game and even their own rules.  This will come later, but as you watch they may come up with a game similar to one you have taught but change it to fit whatever it is they are doing.

There are many types of play we observe.  Children can play alone (solitary), with another child, in a group, there can be structure or pleasure play, unoccupied play, and even onlooker play. As stated by Bredekamp (2017), “play contributes to language development, self-regulation, attention, creatively, problem solving, and social and emotional skills (p. 133). No matter the type of play a child is engaging in, they are learning to use their imagination, creativity, modeling, creation skills, social and language skills, time management and sticking with a job,  and math and problem solving and other things we can’t or might not see.

As early childhood professionals we must ensure that our students have time to play and that we schedule this time.  We need to explain to families and administrators why play is vital in a  child’s learning and development. Document and highlight when play is covering skills that are required of your teaching by the national, state and local educational bodies.

Why do children like to play?:

  1. Play is enjoyable
  2. They get to choose what they are doing
  3. The teacher is not in charge
  4. Play makes them feel good about themselves
  5. Children like to be challenged
  6. Children like to think and do

As you set your classroom up this new year, set it up so children are successful and play is visible. Children are learning more through play then we can teach them.   You can actually document a child’s play and development with Kaymbu and instantly document digitally! Having structured teacher-directed time is an important part of your day, but play must also be documented on your daily schedule. Think back to your philosophy and how you know and understand that children grow and develop.


This guest post was written by Tisha Shipley. Tisha has a doctorate of education in Curriculum and Instruction and has taught multiple grade levels at Moore Public Schools, including pre–K and gifted 3rd–6th graders.

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