The Five Types of Play: Supporting child development through play

“It is a happy talent to know how to play.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson


For little learners, play is part of their everyday world. It helps them learn. And as a grown-up in their lives, joining in their play is a big part of that process! Much like when a child takes a tumble and turns to you right away for reassurance, supporting little learners through their play adventures helps them learn to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and start all over again.

The subject of play is so vitally important; the Indiana Department of Education included it in the Early Learning Foundations as “Approaches to Play and Learning.” Now, you can also use the new guidance documents to help you apply this information in the classroom and beyond.


The Five Types of Play

Not all play works the same. But there are many kinds of play that spark learning — and many ways for adults to encourage learning through play. And the more we know about how children learn and play, the more we can do to help them achieve the big lessons in life. Little learners will understand more and more about the world through physical play, sensory and fine-motor play, symbolic play, dramatic play, and games with rules.


Physical play

Tummy time and crawling are each tremendously beneficial for babies. Around two years old, children get more interested in very active “exercise play”: jumping, climbing, dancing, skipping, playing ball and riding bikes. Exercise play takes up 20% of a little learner’s day by the time they reach preschool.

And while wrestling, chasing and rolling can mean a less quiet environment, they make it possible for children to learn how to measure their strength in relation to other people and things. They are also learning valuable social skills: pushing or kicking people can cause pain, and hitting and kicking a ball in games can mean something good. When children are rough, they are learning about emotions, social skills and about themselves. The more practice they get, the better. Encourage playing outdoors or assign a classroom area for safe active play. Click here for active play ideas for yucky weather.



Sensory and fine-motor play

Exploring how objects feel and behave is part of a child’s learning journey. Children use this sensory and fine-motor play when they work with their fingers or use their senses to explore. When they are babies, they do this by putting things in their mouth and throwing them. As they grow older, they try to arrange and sort things. They might be stacking blocks or arranging their baby carrots. With sensory and motor play, children are learning to focus. They are developing their thinking, reasoning and problem-solving skills.

You can support a child’s learning by encouraging their curiosity. Provide open-ended toys, like building blocks, LEGOs, play scarves or magnet toys.

Take a look at four easy ways for your little learners to explore in your mud kitchen.


Symbolic play

From the moment babies repeat sounds they hear around them, they are playing with language. This type of play grows to include inventing words, rhyming, and, later, puns and jokes. Language play is how little learners explore words and advance their literacy skills. They are also learning how to express their emotions.

Symbolic play also includes representation, like drawing and using music in play. By making drawings and expressing ideas through sounds, your little learners try out different ways to talk about lots of things. Perhaps they’re saying how much they like French fries or going to the park, but it might sound like babbles with a baby or silly, made-up words when they are toddlers. Encourage little learners by providing materials, like paper and markers, for them to express themselves creatively. And spend plenty of time chatting about your day. 


Curious about making learning through play a reality in your program or classroom? You can take specific, intentional actions to put play at the center of early learning…



Dramatic play

Babies as young as one can engage in dramatic or “pretend” play. By the time a child is 3 or 4 years old, their imagination truly takes off. “I am a superhero and a queen!” Play along and enjoy their dive into this imaginary world.

Playing a character means a child must follow certain rules: if they are a cat, they must walk on four legs and make specific sounds, if they are an airplane, they will need wings to fly. For these reasons, some scientists believe pretend play can teach self-restraint, self-regulation and help little ones develop social responsibility, which is helpful both in classroom settings and throughout their lives.



Games with rules

Playing is a child’s most time-occupying job. And their goal is to make sense of the world through what they learn, which is how games with rules fit into play-based learning. Board games, building puzzles and outdoor group games are all ways your little learner can better understand concepts like cooperation, taking turns and team work. 

Games with rules also provide children with opportunities to contribute their skills in social environments. Encourage little learners with games like hide-and-seek, catch or tag. Or make up a classroom game together!




Important Types of Play in Your Child’s Development. Verywell Family

Whitebread D. The Importance of Play. April 2012.

How to Support Children’s Approaches to Learning? Play with Them! National Association for the Education of Young Children



Family engagement is important! Click here for a family-facing version of this post.