Categories of Play: How one play is different from another?

In continuation of our previous blog on the significance of Play in Early Child Development (ECD), we are now going to learn about the categories of play. This categorization is lifted directly from the categorization provided by Dale Shipley in the book Empowering Chidren. This textbook categorizes play in two ways; according to styles of play, or the ways in which children interact with materials, according to types of play, or the social contexts in which play occurs. It is important for teachers to understand the styles, and types of play in order to plan and to use play and learning environments effectively to promote children’s optimum development.

On the basis of Styles of Play


Functional play consists mainly of simple, repetitive movements with or without concrete objects (Rubin, Fein, & Vandenberg, 1983). This type of play dominates the sensorimotor stage of development, which occurs during the first two years of life. Functional play continues throughout childhood, but it largely characterizes the play of infants and toddlers, who explore objects physically, using their senses. Play becomes their way of understanding the properties of things in their world and of testing the reactions of objects to various forms of physical manipulation.

Repetitive or practice play is a form of functional play usually involving the repetition of physical behaviours that have already been mastered. Practice play is the earliest form of exploratory play and is characterized by the infant's sucking of objects, making sounds, listening, gazing, and following moving objects visually. Exploratory activities during the infant and toddler years include tasting, emptying, filling, inserting, pulling, stacking, pushing, rolling, and climbing.

From age two to age three, exploratory play involves arranging, heaping, combining, sorting, spreading, and transforming things in the environment. Later in this stage, children engage in verbal exploratory play by putting words and sounds together in new and often funny combinations. Interlocking materials, such as Lego; modular materials, such as small blocks; balls, rattles, keys, and drums; and stacking or nesting materials facilitate functional play. This style of play continues later with objects that are made to be manipulated in more than one way.

Another form of functional play, testing play, appears early, when the child engages in motor testing by crawling into and out of small places. Later, children engage in testing play when they challenge their own ability to climb to the top of the climber and when they explore the capacity of the unit blocks to sustain a gigantic tower shape without falling over.


Constructive play begins with productive play, which involves the child using materials to produce intended results. Productive play occurs from about two years of age, when children learn the uses of simple play materials and play with them to satisfy their own purposes. Constructive play includes creative play, such as building with blocks; constructing with Tinkertoy and other interlocking materials; sculpting with malleable materials, such as modelling clay or Plasticine; and creating patterns or designs with modular materials such as parquetry tiles and Lego. Children have to practise achieving their own goals in play before they are ready to adapt to externally imposed goals (Butler, Gotts, & Quisenberry, 1978).

In constructive play, children interact with the play materials for their own purposes, often without any particular plan or strategy, to produce a specific outcome. Constructive play continues to be a common form of play in preschools and kindergartens when the right lands of play materials are provided and children have the space and time to play with them for extended periods.


Symbolic play (or representational play) involves the ability to use symbols in ways that are different from their usual purpose (Zigler, Singer, & Bishop-Josef, 2004). For example, the child may make one object stand for another, as in using puppets to represent the other children in the group or in pretending that the table is a house

Being able to transform objects and events by imagining that they have different meanings lies at the heart of cognitive development and communication (Nourot & Van Hoorn, 1991). Planning activities for toddlers and preschoolers that encourage children to use objects symbolically—that is, making one object stand for another—is instrumental in promoting the development of cognition including literacy skills.

Symbolic play occurs during the preoperational stage of development, which lasts from age two to age six or seven years. At two years of age, the child’s newly acquired ability to use objects as symbols begins to predominate over practice play. There are several kinds of symbolic play—imitative play, pretend or dramatic play, sociodramatic play, and fantasy play—each of which involves “progressively symbolic distancing” from the object or event being represented (Nourot & Van Hoorn, 1991). These forms of symbolic play will be discussed in detail in Section 4, which describes the importance of symbolic thinking and their role of play in helping children use objects as symbols.

Imitative play is a form of symbolic play that occurs during the first year of life. This type of play refers to the child’s simple imitation of the actions of a parent or caregiver. The child enjoys games, such as playing pat-a-cake, making cooing or gurgling sounds along with a parent, or mimicking actions, such as hitting a cushion. Right from the early months of life, the infant can imitate other people and is particularly attentive to other children’s actions. Early imitations closely resemble the actions of the adult or older child. Examples include a child rocking a doll in her arms and cooing softly; a child hammering a saucepan with a wooden spoon like a drummer.

Pretend play sequences develop along three transformational strands related to objects, roles, and action sequences; (1) pretend play with objects becomes increasingly independent of the features of the objects; (2) role play moves from personal and bodily related actions, such as pretending to brush hair, to imitation of others' activities, such as washing dishes; and (3) action sequences move from single pretend episodes, for example, bathing a baby, to multi-action sequences, such as dressing dolls and taking them for a walk to the store (Fein, 1975). Pretend play is a prerequisite for the later development of dramatic play followed by sociodramatic play.

Toward the end of the sensorimotor period, children begin to engage in pretend or dramatic play, in which they practise their own versions of adult behaviours rather than imitating only what they have seen. At this stage, children are beginning to think using symbols, meaning they can use an object to represent something else. For example, the child delights in pretending to be mommy or daddy by taking a doll for an outing in a carriage or by pushing a stroller as if it were a shopping cart in the supermarket. The dramatic or pretend play ot three-year-olds in the early stages of the preoperational period is predictable and the representations are very simple. Much of this early dramatic play tends to be solitary. Children at this stage generally prefer props that are familiar to them and that are similar physically to the objects and events being imitated. For example, they enjoy playing with child sized replicas of household equipment, cars, trucks, telephones, and computers. Supporting this type of play is essential to children’s development of mature play which is seen in the context of sociodramatic play (Zigler et al., 2004).

Thematic play is a more elaborate form of dramatic role play in which two or more children, usually younger than age four, play out a familiar theme. More repetitive than later versions of sociodramatic play, children’s play challenges them to listen and respond to the actions and language of the other player. Children will often replay fragments of everyday living routines without integrating them into a longer role play sequence. This type of play appears to coincide with the child’s rapid language development, which suggests that teachers should encourage opportunities for thematic play as a rich resource for literacy learning (Segal, 2002)

Fantasy play is a variation of dramatic and sociodramatic play that usually begins to appear in the third year, as soon as children are able to use symbols. It is a “particular type of social pretend play that involves fantastic rather than realistic characters and situations, including story characters such as Goldilocks, Hansel and Gretel, and superheroes” such as Superman and Batman (Saltz & Saltz, 1986). Fantasy play that pursues a fantastical theme over an extended period is usually more mature than sociodramatic play, which represents more commonplace themes

Successful experiences in make-believe or fantasy play depend on time alone, and an unstructured environment that permits flexible use of a wide range of materials and equipment in interesting ways. Fantasy play requires concentration and absorption in play, positive attitudes, healthy self-esteem, and a rich imagination. Often, more than one child is involved in dramatizing remembered themes from a fairy tale or from a television program and in assuming the roles of characters in these stories. Sometimes children assign roles and attempt to stay close to the plot, which all players recognize or remember. The element of fantasy remains, as children see themselves as characters in the story and pour themselves wholeheartedly into becoming their fantastical characters.Sociodramatic play occurs as children mature, social play becomes predominant, and considerable social interaction and cooperative play are incorporated into pretend play.

Bredekamp (2004) and Smilansky (1993) believe this type of play is most effective in developing school readiness abilities. Play becomes less predictable as more variables are involved.The intuitive period, which lasts from ages four to seven, describes the pre logical nature of children’s thinking when they gradually move away from reliance on what they perceive through the senses toward the eventual understanding of concepts.

At this stage, children are becoming able to take the perspective of others and to connect similar objects and events or form classes. It is during this intuitive period that children’s role play evolves from dramatic play using realistic props and simple representations and becomes more complex and realistic. Sociodramatic play begins usually around age four; this is a more social and complex form of symbolic play that occurs when two or more children collaborate in dramatizing experiences from their physical and social environments. Sociodramatic play differs from fantasy play in that it involves dramatizing remembered experiences that are common to the children playing, such as going to the doctor or having lunch at a restaurant. Children older than four or five usually want their sociodramatic play to be as close to reality as possible.

Along with the child’s sharper perception of reality comes a desire to reproduce actions, events, and behaviours from the adult world. Children at this stage enjoy assuming adult roles, as if they are practising for the future or are trying to understand what it feels like to be someone else. As with dramatic play, sociodramatic play provides an opportunity for children to express feelings, solve problems related to their emotional lives, understand the conflicts of others, and experiment with new behaviours. At a more advanced stage, children prefer unstructured, abstract props that can become whatever they want: cardboard boxes, hollow blocks, blankets, sticks, and furniture are examples of such abstract props. With time, children abandon the use of props in their sociodramatic play and rely more on verbalizing what they are doing, using, and thinking.

Sociodramatic play helps children learn to take turns and understand that certain behaviours are important in specific social situations. The abilities to cooperate socially when assuming interdependent roles and to maintain a common script require considerable cognitive and social sophistication. Children need to be aware of typical roles in the social world and should be sensitive to the complexities of relationships. They also should be aware of social networks and be able to communicate, negotiate, and follow commonly understood sequences of social events. Symbolic play and later abilities to assume complex roles are linked to language development and early literacy skills for the young child.

Sociodramatic play is vital to many aspects of cognitive development, since several cognitive capabilities are required to maintain a sociodramatic script or pantomime. Singer and Lythcott (2002) maintain that sociodramatic play not only enhances children’s readiness for school but also promotes social skills and creative development. In this particularly rich form of play, children have to be able to take a perspective other than their own, separate fantasy from reality, take turns, share, cooperate, negotiate, and pretend without the presence of realistic props. They also have to remember the directions that are generally established by the group at the beginning of the play episode. Frequently, children embarking on a sociodramatic play situation will be heard negotiating roles, such as by saying, “You can be the daddy, she’ll be the mommy, and I’ll be the baby.” Another situation may see children setting the scene, as in, “Let’s pretend that we’ve already done our shopping and have unpacked the groceries and now it’s time to get dressed for the party.” Singer and Lythcott are among many other researchers who claim that “the use of various forms of teacher-directed sociodramatic play or other features of narrative thought in the classroom can serve an important role in early education”

Children also develop the capacity to remove themselves temporarily from the script or mime to renegotiate a role or alter the plot. Sometimes children will step out of their roles to prompt another child who has forgotten his part, whispering, for example, “Now go and answer the telephone and pretend you’re talking to Spiderman.” Sociodramatic and fantasy play significantly increase children’s abilities to take a perspective other than their own and to understand the thoughts and feelings of others.

Children whose social experiences are limited, who lack communication skills, and who have low self-esteem generally shun sociodramatic play completely or drop out very soon after the play has begun. The richness of this type of play as a vehicle for learning cognitive and social skills makes it imperative that teachers find ways to help all children become full participants.

The sophistication and complexity of sociodramatic play make it an excellent vehicle for learning a wide range of developmental skills. Most play experts agree that opportunities for sociodramatic and fantasy play are vital to the development of representational abilities, which permit children to project themselves out of their immediate context into a pretend or fantasy world. Smilansky and Shefatya (1990) claim that sociodramatic play expresses the child's need to model himself in thought, feeling, action and reaction after the adults in his immediate surroundings, mainly parents, and arises from his intense desire to be like these adults. These researchers conclude that since parents often overlook their roles in fostering sociodramatic play, early childhood programs should facilitate the acquisition of the basic tools of collective make-believe inherent in sociodramatic play.


Play is characterized by freedom from all but self-imposed rules (which may be changed at will), by open ended fantasy, and by the absence of any goals beyond the activity itself Games, however, often involve competitive play, with agreed-on, often externally imposed, rules that require the use of materials in the manner in which they are intended for the game. They also have a goal or a purpose, such as winning the game. Thus, whereas play is usually regarded as pure enjoyment, games are considered demanding and sometimes stressful.

Rule-bound play involves prearranged rules that children can accept and to which they are able to adapt. When two children play a board game or a game of tag, they must agree on the rules. This requires that children are able to control their behaviour within the limits established (Rogers & Sawyers, 1988; Segal, 2004). When children achieve the concrete operational stage of development, about seven years of age, rule-bound play, or games with rules predominate and school-age children are usually able to understand the significance and stability of rules for the duration of the game or activity.

From age 7 to age 12, the making and accepting of rules becomes an important part of children’s play. Children in this concrete operational period are able to delay gratification, accept external limitations and authority, and challenge existing social expectations and rules in a reasonable manner. During the early stages of this period, children normally engage in board games, physical activities, and games with straightforward, externally imposed rules.

Competitive play allows children to develop and improve their abilities, gain a clearer sense of their own levels of competence, and learn to be good at sports, such as by winning and losing graciously (Weininger, 1979). Children’s increasing abilities to negotiate, form social contracts, question existing rules, collaborate in amending rules, and behave objectively prepare them for engaging in group projects and for becoming team members. Competitive play may describe two or more children playing in a group or two or more groups of children competing to win—for example, in team sports, relays, and other competitive challenges. Children aged six and up are generally ready for competitive play activities.

On the basis Social Contexts of Play

Parten (1933) was the first to classify children’s play. In her classic study of the social interactions of two- to five-year-old children, she defined six increasingly complex levels of social play. She also found that children do not lose the ability to engage in earlier forms of social

play as they get older and that children from ages four to six demonstrate all social contexts of play at different times.

Several studies have shown that considerable learning in all developmental domains occurs because of social play (Parten, 1933; Smilansky, 1968; Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990). Language, communication, and physical and cognitive abilities are fostered when children play together in either mixed-age or age-graded groupings. Many social and emotional skills also depend on children’s play with each other in a variety of social groupings. Learning to listen, take turns, cooperate, share, empathize, show affection, be responsible, channel and communicate emotion acceptably, exercise restraint, delay gratification, and a host of other affective abilities are addressed in the context of social play.


Onlooking Play

In onlooking play, a child observes children playing but does not physically participate. In this type of social play, sometimes called spectator play, the child remains on the periphery of the group and may later imitate the play behaviours he witnessed. Onlooking play is found in the play of children at all stages.

Solitary Play

In solitary play, one child plays alone, although she is in a room where other children are playing. Solitary play may be egocentric, in that the child focuses on satisfying her own needs. Children at all stages engage in solitary play.

Parallel Play

In parallel play, two children play side by side, each occupied by his own activity and not interacting, though each may talk in monologue. The children usually do not exchange conversation or play materials. Parallel play is particularly prevalent among older toddlers and among three-year-olds.

Associative Play

Associative play is loosely organized play in which children participate in a similar activity and may even exchange ideas or play materials but do not subordinate their individual interests to those of the group. For example, they may contribute to a mural without making particular reference to what the other children are adding. A child may imitate the play behaviours of another child but does not engage in interdependent play activity. Associative play is common among three- to four-year-olds.

Cooperative Play

Cooperative play is paired or group social play that involves children with common goals who assume different roles or tasks under the leadership of usually one or two children. An example is that of two children cooperating in an art activity or in a science project.

Another instance is intergroup play, in which two or more groups cooperate in working toward a common end, such as making a mural or planning a puppet show. Play continues for a relatively long time and at a fairly high level of complexity.

Cooperative play begins when children are about four and continues to the onset of the concrete operational period and beyond. Children become progressively more capable in their cooperative play between four and seven years of age and teachers should encourage them in cooperative endeavours.

Competitive play also occurs in the later preschool and kindergarten years when two or more children or two or more groups of children compete to win. Gentle competition may be introduced gradually when children are ready and relatively evenly matched.

Play can be further classified on the basis of many other factors, but we will restrict ourselves to the most accepted one’s. The intention of the play should be to inculcate the important skills while not being suggestive or pushy to the children so that they enjoy the activities. This categorisation is followed diligently by us to provide the children with education without compromising on the joy of participating.

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