Researchers are increasingly finding that play is essential to development in the early years. As a parent, you likely see recommendations from all kinds of places to engage your children in more play in order to stimulate healthy development.
However, it is important to also understand that play is not limited to the conventional activities we see on the playground during recess and lunch. Play is a dynamic action that can take a variety of forms and changes with your child’s development over the years.
According to American sociologist Mildred Parten Newhall, there are actually 6 general types of play that are applicable for ages 2 to 5 years old. These various types of play each have a variety of benefits for the child, and learning about these distinctions can help parents better understand how to guide and support their child’s development through play in the early years.
- Unoccupied Play: although Parten defined this as not truly play, this is actually the most basic level of play. At this stage babies and toddlers are starting to figure out what play is. Their play behaviours are disorganized and mostly involve creative body movements, but there is a lot more going on during this kind of play than meets the eye. Children engaged in unoccupied play are not only developing their play skills but also developing their understanding of the world through movements, the senses, and exploration of the environment.
- Independent or Solitary Play: This stage or type of play can be understood as the play that happens when children are on their own. Solitary play can take a variety of forms, for the more introverted child, it may mean reading a book quietly in the corner of a cozy room, for the more energetic child, it may involve running around outdoor and engaging with nature, picking up sticks and observing insects in the garden. Whatever form independent play takes, it is important for the development of self-concept and self-esteem. Children need to be comfortable with themselves in order to have successful social interactions in the later years.
- Onlooker Play: most parents are familiar with that moment when their child sort of freezes and gets lost in watching mom or dad do something they find interesting. Eventually, they may even begin to imitate the actions that they have observed! This kind of play is good for learning new skills, finding new interests, but also bonding with parents. If parents can get their child involved when they are playing in the onlooker style, then parents and children can play together and this will strengthen attachments.
- Parallel Play: parallel play can be understood as playing beside other children, rather than with others. Children may share the play space and toys but their play is still mostly independent. This kind of play is the first step in learning how to engage in more social kinds of play. Children develop important communication skills like sharing with others and giving other children enough personal space.
- Associative Play: At this stage, children begin to play with others, but their goal-directed behaviours within playing may be different. For example, children my enjoy making art together, they will use the same supplies, share their work, but their individual artistic goals are different. Children begin to develop this sort of play around age 3. This is important for expanding social experiences and lengthening attention spans.
- Cooperative Play: in this sort of play, children have already practiced a lot of their social skills and are now ready to incorporate teamwork into their play activities. Children are capable of playing together with a common goal or purpose. For example, a group of children may decide to play a game of soccer together. They all know the rules of the game, agree to follow them and attempt to play according to this structure. This stage of play helps to further develop social and emotional skills like communication, problem-solving, compromising with others, positive attitudes towards teamwork, creating friendships and building confidence and self-esteem.
There you have it, six types of play in early childhood! Although this kids of play are presented as though they are stages and children graduate from one to the next, this is not always the case. Play is fluid and children may exhibit various types of play all at one age, just in different settings.
So, keep encouraging your children to play, and when you get the chance, play with them! The benefits are endless, and you just might have some fun as well!