Types of play
There are many types of play, and experts each have their own way of categorizing them. Depending on a child's abilities or disabilities, they may excel in some types and find others difficult or even impossible. In supporting children's play, the goal for adults is to create environments that allow for as many types of play as possible. Unfortunately, most playgrounds today focus almost exclusively on physical play. This puts children with mobility problems at a serious disadvantage, whereas playgrounds that foster multiple types of play tend to call forth more inclusive play. Recently, the Alliance for Childhood worked with a partner organization to expand play opportunities at a child-care center in San Jose. Logs, stones, pine cones, and other natural materials became part of the outdoor play offering. One outcome was that the children with disabilities were able to play much more freely with their peers than when the play centered on large motor activities.
The following play types were described by Edward Miller and myself in Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School, and they are adapted for use here. Observing the play types helps sensitize adults to the multiple ways children play. It also provides a tool for assessing whether a play environment is providing adequate opportunity for all types of play.
Children love to climb, run, slide, swing, jump, and engage in every type of movement possible. Such play develops coordination, balance, and a sense of one’s body in the space around it.
Play with small toys and activities like sorting objects into types or sewing little toys increases eye-hand coordination and develops hand skills, something lacking for many children today.
Children often set themselves a task and persevere until they master it, such as making dozens of birthday packages to learn to tie bows, or walking a balance beam over and over while pretending to be a circus performer.
Grade-school children enjoy the challenge of making up their own rules. Much social negotiation is involved in adapting the rules for each play situation.
Building houses, ships, forts, and other structures is a basic form of play that requires skill and imagination. As children grow older, their structures become more complex. In adventure playgrounds, children often build two- and three-story play houses for themselves and their friends.
This broad category incorporates many other play types and is rich with language, problem-solving, creativity, and imagination. It frequently begins with "Let’s pretend," and goes on to include any social roles children want to explore.
Children take an object at hand and convert it into the toy or prop they need through a fluid process of fantasy or imagination. A stick becomes a fishing rod, a crutch, a horse, a sword, or dozens of other things over time.
Children develop mastery of language by playing with words, rhymes, verses, and songs they make up or change. They tell stories and dramatize them. They are fascinated by foreign languages, especially when they are presented playfully in story, verse, or song.
Playing with the arts
Children integrate all forms of art into their play, using whatever materials are at hand to draw, model, create music, perform puppet shows, etc. They explore the arts and use them to express their feelings and ideas.
Children play with dirt, sand, mud, water, and other materials with different textures, sounds, and smells. Such play develops the senses and increases children's comfort with the world around them.
This fundamental form of play is found in animals as well as human beings. Animals know how to play physically without doing injury by rounding their body gestures and not aiming for dominance.
Children extend their abilities through risky play and learn to master challenging environments. They generally know how far they can go without actually hurting themselves. Regrettably, most current play spaces are designed to be as risk-free as possible, giving children little chance to assess risks and set their own boundaries.