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Early Years Play Types

Playfulness is innate in children, and they live to have fun! It is important for children to play for the sake of having fun, but play is also an important tool for learning. Children develop vital skills through play.


Various types of play are available during the early years. Here's everything you need to know:


Early Childhood Play: What is it?

As a definition of play, it is any physical or mental activity done for fun without any particular purpose. The importance of play for young children cannot be overstated, as they develop both life skills and social skills while having fun. A child's curriculum in nursery, pre-school, or early years foundation stage childcare settings is dominated by play. In the early years, play is sometimes a very social activity, or it can be something that children can engage in on their own. Often, play can be divided into two categories: physically active play, such as running around, playing tag, or participating in a team sport. Alternatively, you can engage in mentally active play by colouring, building with blocks, or playing pretend.


It is common for us to have specific ideas about what play is; children play with toys, dolls, and balls. However, the concept of play goes much further than this. Almost any activity that a child finds enjoyable and interesting can be classified as play. Even while observing play, a child is still engaged in their own more passive form of play. It is estimated that children engage in at least 11 different kinds of play in the early years.

How Does Play Affect Child Development?

Play can influence child development in a variety of ways. Playing helps children develop cognitive, physical, social, and emotional skills and improves their well-being. Children develop when they learn. Through their learning, they discover the world, themselves, and their place in it. As well as influencing child development, play can also help children develop the life skills they will need throughout their school career and into their future careers. In addition, play helps children develop friendships and relationships.

Children can also develop key life skills through play, such as:

  • Ability and self-confidence

  • An increase in self-esteem

  • The ability to cope with challenges or disappointments when they don't go as planned.

  • Interacting with children and adults, developing interpersonal skills.

  • Children's social skills usually improve as they grow.

  • Increased independence and decision-making abilities

  • Developing an interest in the world around them.

  • Ability to cope with challenging situations in an age-appropriate manner.

Children's play styles will change as they grow and develop. Play should always be part of childhood, in some form or another: most children will find the type of play they relate to best and will often continue it into adulthood.


The benefits of play for learning

It is important for children to play at every age, but particularly during the early years of their development. Play is important because it exposes children to new situations and helps them develop a wide range of skills and abilities. Through play, children grow and develop in a fun, independent and peer-coordinated manner, while learning and having fun at the same time. Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) outlines the standards that schools, and childcare providers must meet for the learning, development, and care of children from birth to five years old. In the Early Years Foundation Stage framework, which determines how children are taught in the early years of their education, play is one of the three characteristics of effective learning.


The three characteristics are as follows:

  • Exploring and discovering.

  • In their play, they use what they know.

  • A willingness to try new things.


Although only one of these characteristics specifically mentions play, all three are related to play. It is important to encourage children to play, as well as be open-minded and willing to try new things while they explore the world around them. By breaking down play in this manner, practitioners can guide their children more effectively. In the early years of a child's life, play is the best way to help him or her learn, and most children are unaware of the fact that they are learning.


Play can be broken down into 11 different categories for children:


Unoccupied Play

Between the time an infant is born and around three months old, unoccupied play is one of the primary stages of play. While this behaviour is called unoccupied play, it doesn't appear to be play at all. When the infant observes the environment around them, you should look for movements that don't seem to have an objective. The unoccupied play described here is the first step in a child's development toward more meaningful play and exploration, and it is integral to their development.

Independent Play

When a child begins playing alone, independent play develops. Children need independent play skills to become self-sufficient. Playing independently can begin as early as 3 months old (when a child can hold a toy), but it is most common between 2 and 3 years old. Toys that are suitable for independent play should be available to children. Beyond the age of three, some children prefer to play independently rather than with others.

Onlooker Play

Observer play is common at the same age and stage as independent play. This type of play involves children observing either other children's play or the activities of adults, including how they engage with one another. The importance of onlooker play should not be underestimated, even though it may appear passive. Children can learn the rules of games or human interactions this way and gain the confidence they need to play. As part of onlooker play, the child can mimic the play of others, which will allow them to develop their own abilities.

Parallel Play

Similarly, to onlooker play, parallel play develops around the age of two. Parallel play involves two or more children playing alongside each other without interacting with one another. They will play with their own toys and in their own worlds, without influencing each other's play. The children engaged in parallel play may not appear to be interacting with each other, but they are still learning from each other, and may mimic the behaviour they observe. Parallel play will serve as a bridge to other types of play that will develop later.

Associative Play

At about three or four years of age, children begin to engage in associative play, which they will remain in until around the age of five. In this stage of play, children get to know each other and form friendships. Associative play allows children to play independently while communicating with each other at the same time. It is at this stage that they will learn to take turns, solve problems, and develop language through communication. Children learn the building blocks of friendships during this stage of play, which is great for socialization.

Cooperative Play

This new stage is known as cooperative play when all the previous stages are combined. Cooperative play usually develops between the ages of four and five, but some childcare workers may also see it in younger children who have older siblings or strong relationships with older children. It is during this period that cooperative play really expands and develops because it hones key social skills. As a group, children can play small-world imaginative games, play board games and puzzles, or take part in outdoor activities. Even though your child may be engaging in cooperative play now, they may return to earlier phases of play at some point.

Competitive Play

Playing cooperatively with other children will give your child the skills they need to engage in other types of play based on their interests and personality types once they are able to play cooperatively with other children. Among these types of play is competitive play, which promotes social, intellectual, and physical development. Games such as board games and sports such as football are all examples of competitive play. Rules, turn-taking, winning, and losing, and teamwork are all vital skills learned through competitive play.

Constructive Play

Constructive play involves construction, as its name suggests! A child will typically use building blocks, Lego bricks, or magnetic tiles when engaging in constructive play. When children play constructively, they often add additional toys, such as toy trains to the track they have built, or figures to Lego houses. The purpose of constructive play is to help children develop their problem-solving skills: how does something work? What can I do to make this work? What can I do to fix my tower so that it stands upright? Answering these questions requires perseverance, so constructive play teaches children not to give up and to keep trying.

Dramatic Play

A child is engaging in dramatic play when they dress up as a fairy princess or take orders at a pretend restaurant. The term fantasy play is also sometimes used to describe this type of play. Play like this develops children's imaginations as well as their language abilities. By repeating something they have experienced in the real world, and the language involved in it, on their own terms, they are developing their understanding of the situation. The child may choose to play ice cream parlours at home after going to the ice cream parlour, to cement their learning and to understand what their role is. The skills of turn-taking and cooperation are also developed through dramatic play.





Physical Play

It is incredibly important to engage in physical play to build and develop gross and fine motor skills, and many of these skills will remain with you for the rest of your life. Therefore, all children should be encouraged to engage in physical play. Physical play can include throwing or kicking a ball, riding a bike or scooter, or utilizing playground equipment such as climbing frames. Many team sports can be classified as physical play, and they will also develop social and cooperative skills, which will encourage children to work together. The development of these skills, as well as engaging in a healthy lifestyle, will benefit us for the rest of our lives.

Symbolic Play

The last type of play that children commonly engage in is symbolic play. The skills that children enjoy most help them express themselves through symbolic play. They will gain the ability to express themselves and process their thoughts, experiences, and emotions. Playing symbolic activities can involve vocal activities like telling jokes or singing, or fine motor activities such as drawing, colouring, or making sculptures with clay or play dough.

You can promote imagination and develop a positive attitude towards learning by integrating Wedge Whiteboards into your play-based learning activities. Using Wedge whiteboards, you can teach basic academic skills such as maths and language while enabling children to be creative and interact with one another. Sign up now for a copy of our Free Early Years Activities E-book.

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