11 Important Types of Play for Growing Children

Play offers children the opportunity to learn and practice new skills

Types of Play

Verywell / Joshua Seong

Children love to play because it's fun—but it's also vital to healthy development. During different types of play, children learn and practice key social, thinking, physical, and emotional skills, including creativity, imagination, and problem-solving. The benefits of play are progressive, meaning that the skills kids develop during their fun and games build upon each other.

Play activities like rolling a ball back and forth with a sibling or putting on a costume help little ones learn to take turns, build fine motor skills and proprioception (awareness of the body in space), and practice getting along with others.

Influential sociologist Mildred Parten was an early advocate for the benefits of play. Her work described six essential types of play that kids take part in, depending on their age, mood, and social setting, and what children learn from them.

Every child develops at their own pace and may engage in these types of play earlier or later. And while these stages are progressive, they often occur simultaneously. A child may not leave one type of play behind when they move on to the next one.

Types of Play

  • Unoccupied play
  • Independent play
  • Onlooker play
  • Parallel play
  • Associative play
  • Cooperative play
  • Competitive play
  • Constructive play
  • Dramatic play
  • Physical play
  • Symbolic play

Unoccupied Play

The first stage of play is unoccupied play. primarily from birth to three months. This type of play likely doesn't look like play at all. However, when babies observe their surroundings or make random movements that don't seem to have an objective, this is actually unoccupied play. It sets the stage for future play exploration.

Parents don't need to do anything special to foster this type of play. Babies do it instinctively. However, it's important to allow babies to explore, even if it's just wiggling their hands and feet in the air. Your baby might enjoy a play mat or activity gym, but these aren't essential.

Solitary (Independent) Play

Solitary play is just what it sounds like—your child playing alone. This type of play teaches children how to keep themselves entertained, one of the steps on the path to being self-sufficient. Once your baby can interact with toys, such as by grasping a rattle, they are starting to move into the independent play stage.

Toys for independent play can be anything that babies, toddlers, or preschoolers can play with on their own, such as stuffed animals, blocks, toy figures, dress-up costumes, musical instruments, play tools, dolls, push toys, and books.

Any child can play independently, but this type of play is most common in children between two and three years old. At that age, children are still pretty self-focused and lack good communication and sharing skills. If a child is on the shy side and doesn't know their playmates well, they may prefer this type of play at older ages as well.

Preschoolers and older kids may continue to choose independent play even after learning to play well with others as it provides unique opportunities to explore their own interests on their own terms.

Onlooker Play

In onlooker play, a child simply observes other children playing and doesn't partake in the action. They may watch what you or other adults are doing as well. Onlooker play is typical for children between two and three years old and is especially common for younger children whose vocabulary is developing.

Don't dismiss the importance of this type of play. It's a healthy form of learning and part of your child's play journey. It could be that the child feels tentative, needs to learn the rules, or just prefers to watch before joining in play with others. Watching helps kids gain confidence and prepare for future stages of play.

During onlooker play, by observing and possibly mimicking the play of others, your child is building their own skills.

Your child may be using their own toys while engaging in onlooker play, but this type of play is about observing rather than playing alongside others, which is called parallel play. However, children in onlooker play may comment on what they're seeing. They are learning about how other kids play and interact.

Parallel Play

Put two three-year-olds in a room together and you are likely to see them having fun, playing side by side in their own little worlds. It doesn't mean that they don't like one another; they are just engaging in parallel play. This type of play begins around age two and differs from playing together in that neither child tries to influence the play of the other.

Despite having little overt contact with each other, children in parallel play learn quite a bit from one another. Even though it appears that they aren't paying attention to each other, they truly are and often mimic their playmate's behavior.

Like each of the other stages, this type of play is a bridge to the later stages of play. Many types of activities, from drawing to playing with toy cars, can occur during parallel play.

Associative Play

Associative play commonly begins around age three or four. Like parallel play, it features children playing separately. But in this type of play, children are involved with what others are doing.

Think of a small group of kids building a city with blocks. As they build their individual buildings, they talk to one another, but they primarily work on their own.

This stage of play helps little ones develop a whole host of skills, such as socialization (what should we build now?), taking turns (can I have the blue one now?), problem-solving (how can we make this city bigger?), cooperation, and language development.

Associative play is how many children begin to make real friendships. Typically, this form of play phases out by age five.

Cooperative Play

Cooperative play is where all the stages come together and children truly start playing together. Typically starting between four and five years of age, this is the predominant type of play in groups of kids this age and up, or in younger preschoolers who have older siblings or have been around a lot of children.

Cooperative play uses all of the social skills your child has been working on and puts them into action.

This stage of play can encompass many different types of play activities. Whether they are building a puzzle together, playing a board game, or enjoying an outdoor group activity, cooperative play sets the stage for future interactions as your child matures. However, kids will still return to the earlier stages of play from time to time as well.

Competitive Play

The stages of play are vital to your child's social development. Once a child reaches the cooperative play stage, you may see them trying out other types of play. These also contribute to development of social, thinking, and physical skills.

When your child is playing Chutes and Ladders or joins a sports team, they are engaging in competitive play. This helps them learn about rules, turn-taking, functioning as part of a team, and the realities of winning and losing.

Competitive play can also help kids develop motional regulation, sportsmanship, and the ability to cope with defeat.

Constructive Play

Constructive play teaches kids about manipulation, building, and fitting things together. Examples include building with blocks, Legos, or magnetic tiles, making a road for toy cars, or constructing a fort out of couch pillows.

During constructive play, kids use cognitive skills to figure out how to make something work, whether it is a block tower that won't stand up or a sandcastle that keeps collapsing. This type of play also teaches the power of trying again.

Dramatic Play

When your child plays dress-up, school, or restaurant, it's dramatic or fantasy play. Through this type of play, your child's imagination gets a workout. Plus they learn how to take turns, cooperate, and share, and they work on language development.

Role play also helps teach kids about functioning in the greater community.

Physical Play

Physical play includes activities such as throwing a ball, climbing a play structure, riding a bike, or playing a game like tag. This type of play builds gross and fine motor skills. Physical play encourages kids to develop fitness skills and to enjoy physical activity, which provides lifelong benefits.

Symbolic Play

This type of play can include vocal activities (singing, jokes, or rhymes), graphic arts (drawing, coloring, or working with clay), counting, or making music. Symbolic play helps children learn to express themselves and explore and process their experiences, ideas, and emotions.

A Word From Verywell

Play is a tremendously important part of child development. While parents and caregivers should encourage and support opportunities for play, remember that children need their own time and space to learn these skills, which will come independently.

Parents don't need to actively teach the lessons kids learn from play. The beauty is that children discover concepts and skills as they play their games, all in good fun.

8 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Amanda Rock
Amanda Rock, mom of three, has spent more than a decade of her professional career writing and editing for parents and children.