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Types of Play

Why having fun isn't just a game for your preschooler

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Play isn't about your preschooler having fun. It's an important part of early childhood development.

Play isn't about your preschooler having fun. It's an important part of early childhood development that often sets the tone for how your child learns and socializes in the future.

Anthony Bradshaw

How important is play to your little one? Consider this. When a child engages in play, whether it's rolling a ball back and forth with a sibling or putting on a costume and imagining she's an astronaut -- she's developing important social skills like learning to take turns, how to cooperate and getting along with others as well as honing her creativity and imagination. Play doesn't just vary by activity either -- sociologist Mildred Parten discovered there are six types of play that a child will take part in, depending on their age, mood and social setting. They are:

  • Unoccupied play Referring mostly to newborns and infants, the term unoccupied play refers to activity when a child actually isn't playing at all. He may be engaged in seemingly random movements, with no objective. Despite appearances, this is definitely play and setting the stage for future play exploration.
  • Solitary (independent) play Just what it sounds like -- when your child plays alone. This type of play is important because it teaches a child how to keep himself entertained, eventually setting the path for being self sufficient. Any child can play independently, but this type of play is the most common in younger children ages two or three. Part of it has to do because they are still pretty self-centered, but a lack of good communication skills also plays a role. If a child is on the shy side and doesn't know the person who he is playing with well, he may prefer this type of play.
  • Onlooker play Also common in younger children who are working on their developing vocabulary, onlooker play is when a child simply observes other children playing and doesn't partake in the action. Don't worry if your little one is behaving this way -- it could be that the child feels shy or needs to learn the rules or maybe is the youngest and wants to just take a step back for a while.
  • Parallel play Put two three year olds in a room together and this is what you are likely to see: the two children having fun, playing side by side in their own little world. It doesn't mean that they don't like one another, they are just engaging in parallel play. Despite having little social contact with her playmate, children who parallel play actually learn quite a bit from one another like taking turns and other social niceties, because even though it appears they aren't paying attention to each other, they truly are and often mimic the other one's behavior. As such, this type of play is viewed as an important bridge to the later stages of play.
  • Associative play Slightly different than parallel play, associative play also features children playing separately from one another, but in this mode of play they are involved with what the others are doing -- think children making a city with blocks. As they build their individual buildings, they are talking to one another, and engaging each other. This is an important stage of play because it helps little ones develop a whole host of skills -- socialization (what should we build now?) and problem solving (how can we make this city bigger?), cooperation (if we work together we can make our city even better!) and language development (learning what to say to get their messages across to one another). Through associative play is how children begin to make real friendships.
  • Cooperative play Where all the stages come together and children truly start playing together. Common in older preschoolers (or in younger preschoolers who have older siblings or have been around a lot of children), cooperative play brings together all of the social skills your child has been working on and puts them into action. Whether they are building a puzzle together, playing a board game, "house" or an outdoor game with a group, cooperative play really sets the stage for future interactions as your child matures into an adult.

While these stages are important and necessary for a child's social development, there are other types of play that also contribute to a child's maturity. These types of play usually develop as a child begins to engage in cooperative play and include:

  • Dramatic/Fantasy play Got a kid who loves to play dress up? How about "doctor" or "restaurant?" That's dramatic, or fantasy play. Through this type of play, not only does your child's imagination get a workout, but they learn how to take turns, cooperate, share and work on language development. Through role play, kids are also able to learn about functioning in the greater community.
  • Competitive play Whether she's beating her brother at Chutes and Ladders or playing on a local soccer team, your child is engaging in competitive play. Rules and turn taking are the big lessons taken from this type of play, but so are taking turns and functioning as part of a team (if that is the type of play involved). This can be a very fun type of play if your child wins, but be prepared to talk your child through it if she loses.
  • Physical play This type of play is less about being social (although it certainly involves that) and more about being physical. Gross and fine motor skills really come into play here, whether your child is throwing a ball or riding a bike. Physical play is important because it encourages kids to be active, something they are likely to do as they get older.
  • Constructive play Building with blocks. Making a road for some toy cars. Constructing a fort out of couch pillows. All forms of constructive play. Constructive play teaches kids about manipulation, building and fitting things together. Cognitive skills are important here too as a child learns to figure out how to make something work best, whether it is a block tower that won't stand up or a sand castle that keeps collapsing.

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