10 Types of Play for Child Development

As your child ages, they’ll participate in many different types of play. Here’s how each contributes to their growth and development.

Boy plays with dinosaurs

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Play is a source of entertainment for babies, toddlers, and children. Whether they’re stacking blocks or imitating animals, it keeps them occupied throughout the day. But did you know that play promotes growth and development

“Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth,” according to a study from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Through play, children learn firsthand about problem solving, cause and effect, creative thinking, and communication. They also develop fine and gross motor skills. 

What’s more, “play is how young children make sense of the world,” says Lauren Starnes, Ed.D, a child development expert and chief academic officer for The Goddard School. “It's through play that young children reenact social situations and take on different roles and perspectives.” For example, kids might imitate their parents' behaviors and emotions to understand society (don't be surprised if they pretend to cook dinner or argue about household chores!) These lessons also contribute to a greater sense of self.

Lauren Starnes, Ed.D

“Play is how young children make sense of the world."

— Lauren Starnes, Ed.D

The Different Stages of Play

Children will participate in many different types of play as they grow. This includes the six stages of play outlined by sociologist Mildred Parten in 1932: unoccupied play, solitary play, onlooker play, parallel play, associative play, and cooperative play. According to Parten’s research, children progress through these six stages before they’re 5 years old. Once they master them, they’ll try out other types of play that fall into those categories, including competitive play, dramatic play, and more. 

As kids progress through the stages of play, you’ll know they’re advancing physically and cognitively, says Dr. Starnes. They’re gaining confidence and knowledge while remaining challenged, which demonstrates evolved thought processes. 

Keep reading to learn about 10 common types of play for babies, toddlers, and children. Note that each child will develop at their own pace, and there’s no right or wrong way to play. Although the stages of play occur linearly, some children will backtrack—and this is usually normal, notes Dr. Starnes.

Unoccupied Play

Newborns from 1 to 3 months old will participate in unoccupied play. Think of it as their first attempt to learn about the world. They’ll observe their surroundings and make random body movements out of curiosity. Unoccupied play might not actually look like playing, but it sets the stage for future development.

How to Encourage It: Though newborns will engage in unoccupied play by themselves, it doesn’t hurt to encourage exploration. You could lie them on a playmat, for example, or show them colorful pictures. Interaction with caregivers helps babies gain awareness about their new life.

Independent Play / Solitary Play

From birth to around 2 years old, children don’t pay much attention to playmates in social settings. They’d rather keep themselves entertained through independent play. By engaging in solo play, kids learn about their surroundings, build confidence and independence, practice creativity, experience cause and effect, and fine-tune their motor skills.

How to Encourage It: Young kids can entertain themselves with a wide range of objects, such as push toys, drawing tools, stuffed animals, books, musical instruments, and more. Give your child freedom to play however they wish—and remember that creativity is important for development! Note that some preschoolers and older children may still prefer independent play, depending on their personality and interests.

Onlooker Play

Around 2 years old, toddlers engage in onlooker play. This involves watching others playing but not participating themselves. Parents might be quick to discount the benefits of onlooker play, but experts say it helps kids gain the confidence needed to join the fun. They’ll learn how to play and interact with others

How to Encourage It: Because onlooker play is inactive, it’s easy to incorporate into your daily life. Let your toddler watch you complete interesting tasks like solving a puzzle or playing piano. Even better if they can observe older siblings around the house or neighborhood children at the park!

Parallel Play

Have you ever noticed a group of toddlers playing side-by-side but not together? They’re engaging in parallel play. Kids might use the same toys and mimic each other, but they won’t directly interact with their peers. Parallel play is common in those ages 2 to 3. It indicates they're almost (though not quite) ready to connect with others, and they’re on their way toward social interaction.

How to Encourage It: Provide toys and activities for children to engage in parallel play; toddlers usually enjoy things like stuffed animals, blocks, sticker books, sandboxes, and play dough. You might offer multiples of the same toy to prevent tantrums (toddlers don’t like to share!) and demonstrate how to use the items. Encourage kids to play near each other, but don’t force them to interact. They’ll still learn valuable lessons about cooperation and socialization. 

Associative Play

Around ages 3 or 4, children become more interested in the actions of others. They’ll begin engaging with their peers while playing, but they’ll still do things mainly on their own. For example, kids might draw on the same paper without commenting on each other’s designs  Or they might exchange clothes while playing dress-up. Because kids won’t be working toward a shared goal, there’s little organization involved with associative play. This type of play helps with social skills, cooperation, language, problem solving, and conflict resolution.

How to Encourage It: To promote associative play, your child should regularly be in a social setting with peers (like daycare, preschool, playdates, etc.). "Other children help spark wonder and curiosity," says Dr. Starnes. Make sure the kids have plenty of toys and activities that interest them.

Cooperative Play

This is when children finally start playing with others! Kids first participate in cooperative play around 4 or 5 years old. It lets them practice skills they’ve gained through other stages of play, such as verbal communication, teamwork, and sharing. They’ll also learn new skills like kindness, empathy, and compromise. Through cooperative play, kids work toward a common goal, whether it’s building a block tower together or playing duck-duck-goose. It’s essential for social and emotional development.

How to Encourage It: Show your child examples of cooperative play in daily life. Maybe it's trying a family game that involves taking turns or planting the garden together. You can also encourage activities that require cooperation, such as raking leaves, building a fort, or organizing toys.

Dramatic or Fantasy Play

Dramatic play focuses on your child’s most impressive tool: their imagination. Any type of fantastical activity falls into this category, such as dress-up, pretend house, or make-believing you work at a restaurant. "They're trying out behaviors to mimic what they see in the real world," like holding conversation and cooperating with others, says Dr. Starnes.

How to Encourage It: Dramatic play is easier with the appropriate props! Give children costumes, accessories, and other items that fit their role-play games. For example, stuffed animals can double as students in their fantasy classroom, while plastic dinnerware makes their pretend restaurant more realistic.

Competitive Play

Like its name suggests, competitive play consists of organized activities with rules and winners. Some examples are board games and sports. Not only do children learn about teamwork through competitive play, they also gain experience with taking turns, following rules, and coping with failure—all important lessons for navigating society.

How to Encourage It: Very young kids can participate in friendly competition (like racing in the backyard), but competitive play mostly happens in elementary school.  To encourage it, host family game nights or enroll your child in sports. As your child becomes familiar with the activities, you might notice their resilience and confidence growing! 

Physical Play

Physical play involves body movement, but not necessarily in a competitive setting. Some examples are playing tag, throwing a frisbee, dancing to music, and riding scooters. Physical play can develop gross and fine motor skills in children. It also helps with balance, hand-eye coordination, muscle development, and more.

How to Encourage It: Don’t be afraid to let your kids get active! They build strong and healthy bodies through regular physical activity. If you notice the play is becoming too violent, you can redirect it, suggests Dr. Starnes.

Constructive Play

Through constructive play, children create something with materials in an organized way (think building with Legos or making a sandcastle). They’re relying on their ideas to navigate the world around them. Constructive play teaches about persistence, planning, creativity, and logical thinking. Kids also get real-world experience with scientific and mathematical concepts, which often fuels their natural curiosity.  

How to Encourage It: Constructive play is very hands-on. Provide materials that can be used for construction, like wood, sand, craft supplies, train tracks, Legos, etc. You can also guide their curiosity: Can they build a bridge for their race cars? What about a tunnel from recycled materials? 

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