Learning through play: 11 types of play

Play is an important part of early childhood and is essential for strong brain development. In essence, play is a child’s “work.” Through play, children learn core life skills like problem-solving and regulating emotions; academic skills in math, science, and language; and social skills like resolving conflicts and taking turns.


There are many different types of play! You have probably observed your children engaged in some or most of the following, depending on their ages. Here’s what they are doing:


Unoccupied Play

When a child seems to be moving randomly with no real objective, they are examing their world and setting the stage for future play and exploration.


Solitary (Independent) Play

When a child plays alone, they are learning to stay entertained, paving the way for self-sufficiency.


Onlooker Play

When a child observes others engaged in play without participating, they are learning about others’ ways of playing and seeking to understand social rules.


Parallel Play

When children play side by side, maybe using the same toy or material, but not actively engaged with one another, they are taking their first steps toward eventually playing together.


Associative Play

When children play separately but are involved in what each other are doing; engaging, but still making their own creations, they are taking further steps toward creating friendships.


Cooperative Play

When children interact and engage in play together — there is a purpose or adoption of roles — they have reached cooperative play. This is what parallel and associative play have been leading up to and can include conflict as children learn to share and take turns.


Dramatic Play

When children assign roles and act them out. This type of play is important to developing intellectual and verbal skills and shows higher-level thinking: children are remembering, re-enacting, and understanding.


Expressive/Creative Play

When children express themselves and explore ideas, emotions and experiences through voice, music, rhyme, art, they are developing their intellectual abilities through memory, exploration, and creation.


Physical Play

When children use their whole bodies to play — climbing, rolling, kicking, throwing, running, catching, pinching/picking — they are learning their physical abilities (and limits).


Rough and Tumble Play

Building from physical play, this includes risky, adventurous, unstructured, natural play that contributes to skills such as resilience, independence, self confidence, physical control and coordination, self regulation and the ability to process fears and stress.


Imaginative Play

When conventional rules from the real world do not apply, children are engaged in imaginitive play. While they are pretending to be a flying cow who saves puppies or a troll who steals a pirate’s gold, they are also making choices and experiencing outcomes of decisions in a controlled environment.