Play is a huge part of every childhood. Though the strange and fast-moving way kids engage in play might seem silly or pointless to adults, play actually serves an important purpose in a child’s development.
When kids engage in play, they learn skills that will be important to them throughout their lives. Creativity, motor skills and social skills are all acquired through play, at least partially. Play is so essential, in fact, that the United Nations recognizes play as an essential right of children.
If play is so important, you might begin to wonder what type of play is best for your child The short answer is that no one type of play is more or less important and beneficial than another. In “Free to Learn,” psychology research professor Peter Gray identifies these six main types of play, all of which serve different but equally necessary purposes in child development.
1. Physical Play
Physical play is any kind of play activity that involves physical movement, such as running, climbing, jumping or play-fighting, for example. Physical play helps kids improve motor skills and coordination, and depending on the activity, it can help them grow strong and fit.
Physical play is also important because it tends to get kids playing outside, which has its own benefits. Though physical play might occasionally become dangerous, such as when climbing a tall tree or roughhousing, as long as an adult provides supervision, physical play is healthy and fun and allows kids to learn how to use their bodies in a variety of ways.
2. Exploratory Play
Exploratory play allows kids to get acquainted with their surroundings using their senses. Kids use this type of play to explore the world around them by touching things, picking them up, observing or trying to figure out how something works.
Because everything is so new to young children, exploratory play is an important type of learning. By engaging in this type of play, kids expand their knowledge and become curious to learn more.
3. Constructive Play
Constructive play involves kids making something they have mentally envisioned. Playing with LEGOs, painting and building a fort could all be considered types of constructive play.
When kids build things during constructive play, they have the opportunity to learn a number of skills. These might include planning, fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination and even creativity. Constructive play can be especially rewarding because it can allow kids to express themselves and proudly display that expression to other people, like you.
4. Language Play
Language play involves the use of language and sounds for the purpose of fun. This type of play can be as simple as making noises to entertain or as complicated as inventing a secret language. Rhyming, singing and telling jokes are all great examples. Any type of play activity that includes talking can be considered language play.
Language play helps kids get a grasp on communication. It can improve language usage and general communication skills. Plus, it’s just fun. Though a babbling child may start to irritate parents and teachers, practicing language is essential.
5. Fantasy Play
Kids engage in fantasy play by using their imaginations to explore new roles and ideas. Commonly known as playing pretend, this type of play lets kids try on new identities as if they were costumes. It requires them to choose and remember a role — such as mermaid, doctor or lion — and act it out, either alone or in a group. In the process, they can learn things about relationships and the world they live in.
Neuroscientist Adele Diamond and psychologist Deborah Leong suggest that this type of imaginative play might be the most important. This is because it teaches kids to make their own decisions, leading to increased executive function. However, fantasy play is often combined with other types, such as language and physical play.
6. Social Play
Finally, social play takes place when kids play together and negotiate the rules. Some kids might make up their own games or engage in social play during structured activities, such as soccer, to resolve conflict that arises.
Social play is essential to a child’s development of social skills. It can teach kids compromise, communication and problem-solving, all of which will remain important throughout their lives.
In the end, there is no best type of play. Instead, the different types can come together in creative combinations to teach an array of vital skills. Whatever type of play your child enjoys best is the right type for them, though encouraging variety can give them lots to learn.