Play, itself, is a fluid term. It can be described in so many different ways. Categorizing the types of play is similar. Professionals break them down in various ways depending on development, skillset, age, and more. Because there is overlap between developmental skills achieved, there is often overlap between types and subtypes as well.
There are 5 types of play that encompass developmental skills (Goodson & Bronson, 1997):
- Gross Motor Play
- Fine Motor Play
- Creative Play
- Imaginative Play
- Cognitive Play
This should not be confused with the six stages of play which will be covered in a different post.
These play types are used when talking about toys and activities because it makes it easier for parents and educators see what skills are actually being promoted through play. Let’s take a look at each one a bit more in depth and discover what makes them important. This information can help you better choose toys and implement activities intended for growth.
Gross Motor Play
Often called physical play, gross motor is more than just running and jumping. This type of play builds muscle, balance, and skill. But it also strengthens confidence, self-esteem, and social skills.
In infants, this may look like holding their head up, rolling over, standing, and taking steps. Toddlers work on walking, climbing, jumping, and new large body movements. Preschoolers gain speed, learn more complex movements, and climb to new heights (Johnson, Christie, & Wardle, 2005).
Fine Motor Play
This type of play encompasses a great deal of toys used throughout the day. Fine motor play is anything that can be manipulated or used with the hand. Children not only work on grasping, but also hand-eye coordination. Problem solving and cause and effect are two other skills that are often developed within fine motor play. This can range from teething toys and rattles in infants to dressing baby dolls and sorting or patterning in preschoolers. Sensory play can fall into this category as well, but it is not exclusive.
Art, crafting, and music are also types of play called creative play. Infants are still developing their senses, so music and baby-safe art, such as squishing berries onto paper, are beneficial. Toddlers begin to use creative play to discover a sense of self, follow a process, as well as confidence and self-esteem. When preschoolers are engaging in creative play, they are building initiative, problem solving, and observing cause and effect. Creative play can also develop hand-eye coordination, fine motor, and gross motor skills.
Pretend play is something people often associate with child’s play. This is the one type that is not typically engaged in by infants, but by caregivers to infants. For example, moving an animal toy toward baby and making its sounds. Don’t be confused when baby imitates this, as they are processing, not pretending (Snow & McGaha, 2003). On the other hand, toddlers will begin to imagine taking care of dolls or stuffed animals in a way that they have seen, but making up the needs and scenario. As children get older, the imaginative play becomes more detailed and with costumes and props.
This type of play helps to develop social and emotional skills, even among infants. Children will often work through their own emotions by pretending with toys. It can help children understand how society works and where they fit in the world around them. More importantly, it allows for free and critical thinking, problem solving, and cooperative play as they interact with their peers.
You might be thinking, “Isn’t all of this cognitive play?” The answer is yes and no. While it is true that children are learning no matter what type of play they are engaging in, some activities or toys are very specific for certain skills. Letter and number recognition, for example, may not fit into one of the aforementioned categories. Books can also be considered cognitive play, which is why they are included on this website.
As you can see, there can be overlap between the five types of play. Yet, each one is important for the growth and development of young children. When facilitating young children’s education, it is important to make sure the activities and materials fall into at least one of these categories. However, if you were to observe a child in free play, you would see the vast amount of knowledge and development that is built through natural play.
Goodson, B. and Bronson, M. (1997) Which Toy for Which Child. US Consumer Product Safety Commission. Available at https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED416999.pdf
Johnson, J., Christie, J., and Wardle, F. (2005) Play, Development, and Early Education. Pearson Education, Inc.
Snow, C. and McGaha, C. (2003) Infant Development. Pearson Education, Inc.