17 Types of Play Based Learning in Early Childhood

play-based learning, explained below

There are at least 17 types of play.

Play based learning is widely understood to be the most beneficial form of learning during early childhood. It can stimulate cognitive, social, physical and emotional development.

Differences in play styles and preferences include:

  • Risk tolerance.
  • Level of adult interaction
  • Level of peer interaction.
  • Amount of freedom and control the child has.
  • Play objectives.
  • Developmental ability.

Below are 17 common types of play.

Each type has different strengths and weaknesses.

Educators should aim to give students a variety of different play experiences to ensure children get the benefits of each type of play below.

Types of Play

1. Unstructured Play

Definition: “Children’s play scenarios have no set objectives. Children control the direction of the play narrative.”

Related approaches: Child led play, Child initiated play

Unstructured play involves free and open-ended play scenarios. There are no clear objectives set by the child or the teacher during this form of play. It can be a free-flowing style of play designed to give children maximum control and freedom in their learning environment.

Parents and educators can be overbearing during play which can prevent children from exercising agency during learning. Unstructured play experiences can address the weaknesses of adult-led play. They allow children to exercise creativity, unorthodox thinking and experimentation.

Similarly, child led and initiated play empower children to take control of their own learning.

Child led play involves the child taking charge and the adult following the child’s cues. This gives the child the opportunity to:

  • Be a leader.
  • Use their imagination to shape the play narrative.

Child initiated play similarly involves the child taking charge during play. However, it is slightly difference inasmuch as the child controls when the play situation begins and ends. This makes the play more spontaneous.

Two negatives of child led and initiated play are:

  • The play scenario may not progress the child’s development. E.g. a child may only play games that are within their comfort zone and not challenging enough.
  • Educators are often required to help children meet developmental outcomes and curriculum objectives. These will not be achieved if the play is entirely unstructured.​

2. Structured Play

Definition: “Play scenarios have clear objectives set by the adult. Adults control the direction of the play narrative.”

Related approach: adult led play

Structured play involves play that has clear rules. This sort of play teaches students about how to accept rules, accept judges’ decisions, and follow instructions. Structures can also help children to progress toward specific learning objectives.

Structured play usually is characterized by an adult guiding and instructing children throughout their learning. It is usually employed so that:

  • Play scenarios have clear objectives.
  • The play session adheres to curriculum requirements.
  • Play occurs in a safe environment.

This type of play involves teaching strategies such as:

  • Direct instruction and modelling to ensure students follow pre-set procedures.
  • Segmenting of play lessons into chunks so the adult can monitor progress according to the structure set in place.

Disadvantages of structured play include:

  • Children’s creativity may be stifled by the need to stay within the guidelines.
  • Children need a base level of skills in following rules and need to be able to understand instructions.

As children get older, structured play morphs into formal game play such as following the rules of football, tennis and other organized sports.

Arguably, structured play could also be child-led so long as the children are taught to self-regulate and follow pre-designed structures and rules.

3. Guided Play

Definition: “Children direct the play scenario while adults play along. Adults use questioning and provide suggestions to stimulate learning.”

Guided play is an approach to play designed to mediate between structured and unstructured play.

During guided play, children are in the driver’s seat, while adults focus on using modeled and guided practice to challenge and extend children’s learning.

Examples of guidance adults can use during play include:

  • Asking prompting questions.
  • Modelling developmentally appropriate language.
  • Introducing new materials during play to extend thinking.
  • Encouraging communication between children.

While guided play is a preferred method by many student-centered educators, some criticisms include:

  • Children still need opportunities to play without adult interference to develop self-regulation skills.
  • Too much adult interference may stifle creativity.
  • Adults should still allow children to make errors and identify their errors without overbearing interference.

4. Unoccupied Play

Definition: “Children in the early months of life observe their immediate environment and master the use of their senses.”

Unoccupied play is the first of Patten’s 6 stages of play. It is a stage of play that occurs in children in the first 6 months of life. They do not appear to be playing but are learning the building blocks of play.

Observable features of unoccupied play include:

  • There does not appear to be any objectives or structure in their play behaviors.
  • The child observes others at play but does not participate.
  • The child is concerned with things in their immediate eyesight. They may begin reaching out for and grabbing nearby objects to get sensory experiences.
  • They work on mastering their limb and motor movements, including grabbing.

Once children have mastered self-control and become familiar with their surrounds, they will move on to the solitary play stage.

5. Solitary Play

Definition: “Solitary play has no input from other children or adults. During solitary play, the child plays simply with the materials and environment that surrounds them.”

Developmental psychologist Mildred Parten argues solitary play happens very regularly between 6 months and 2 years. During this age, children are very focused on exploring their immediate world using their senses and less focused on developing social skills.

However, solitary play is observable at all ages.

Some quieter, more introverted children may be very happy learning alone.

Solitary play has great benefits for learning. Jean Piaget argues it is highly beneficial for children’s cognitive development as children discover for themselves rather than being simply told things by others. Piaget went to the extent of giving children engaging in solitary play the moniker ‘lone scientists’.

Other benefits of playing alone include:

  • Children can make bolder experiments and take greater risks knowing social embarrassment won’t occur if they fail.
  • Children have better control over the pace of their learning, allowing time to think.

6. Onlooker Play

Definition: “Onlooker play is a brief stage of play in which children show interest in other children’s play behaviors without playing themselves.”

When a child is in a new situation, they may want to observe the environment before slowly engaging themselves. This stage of play might be understood as the moment in which a child is assessing their surrounds before dipping a toe in the water themselves.

Onlooker play is a natural and common behavior, even among adults who might observe a game as spectators without participating themselves.

However, onlooker play can occasionally be a sign of social challenges among children. Bullying and anxiety may cause children to withdraw from social situations. When a child appears to be struggling to intermingle with their peers, intervention to encourage positive socialization may be necessary.

7. Parallel Play

Definition: “During parallel play, children play alongside one another without explicitly interacting. However, children may share space and resources.”

Children play in a shared play space with peers but do not share their play experiences. Their play situations have different games, goals and objectives.

Parallel play usually occurs between 18 months and 4 years.

Central to parallel play is the role of observation and mimicking. Children will watch their peers playing and copy their strategies or activities without actually interacting with any other child.

Parallel play is different from associative play because in parallel play, children do not explicitly converse with one another during their play.

8. Associative Play

Definition: “Children play alongside each other in the same space and explicitly interact. However, they continue to play their own games with their own objectives.”

Associative play occurs after parallel play.

Associative and parallel play differ in the following ways:

  • Parallel play involves children playing in the same play space but without direct contact.
  • Associative play involves children playing in the same place and interacting.

Associative play behaviors include:

  • Negotiating use of resources and space.
  • Asking one another questions.
  • Seeking support from others.

However, during associative play, children do not:

  • Share play objectives or common goals.
  • Take or assign roles in games.
  • Collaborate and compromise.

9. Cooperative Play

Definition: “Children interact and play together with shared objectives, negotiated group roles and using the same materials.”

Cooperative play follows associative play and occurs when children further develop their social skills. It is commonly seen in elementary school playgrounds.

Cooperative play is characterized by sharing not only resources but collaborating in game play and play objectives. In this type of play, children are observably playing together rather than simply in proximity with one another.

Observable features of cooperative play include:

  • Children sharing a common goal, such as the creation of a shared structure when playing with Lego blocks.
  • Children assigning roles to one another during the games
  • Compromise and sacrifice in order for games to flow and to achieve games’ objectives. (E.g. children taking turns in taking the coveted role of the cop in a game of cops and robbers.)

During cooperative play, children experience significant language and social benefits. These include:

  • Learning and modelling language with one another.
  • Working in teams.
  • Taking various team roles, including leader and collaborator roles.

10. Symbolic Play

Definition: “Symbolic or ‘pretend’ play is play that involves the use of inanimate objects to represent other objects, people or things.”

Also known as: Pretend play

This sort of play usually emerges at around 8 months of age.

Examples include:

  • Pushing a wood block around and pretending it is a car.
  • Pretending to drink coffee out of an empty cup.
  • Pretending your dolls are alive and participants in your games.

The use of symbolism in symbolic play is the beginnings of the important cognitive ability to substitute objects in the mind.

This skill will later be exercised in literacy classes when students write metaphoric stories and allegories, and in mathematics when students complete algebraic calculations with scientific calculators.

11. Imaginative Play

Definition: “Imaginative play involves the use of creative fantasies and story lines to create fictional worlds during play.”

Also known as: Fantasy play, sociodramatic play

Imaginative play is one of the most popular forms of play among children and educators. It is play that involves children acting out fantasies.

The fantasies that children act out in their play scenarios are often linked to movies and books that children are exposed to.

Children often act out:

  • ‘Princess and prince’ story lines.
  • ‘Cops and robbers’ story lines.
  • Superhero story lines.

Benefits of imaginative play include:

Adults can support imaginative play by:

  • Providing dress-up resources.
  • Participating in games and taking on the roles allocated by the child.
  • Asking questions to help the child expand on their imaginative worlds.

12. Domestic Role Play

Definition: “A form of play in which children mimic the everyday tasks of adults such as sweeping, cooking and shopping.”

Domestic role play is a form of play that involves mimicking the domestic patterns of parents, including:

  • Playing at housekeeping.
  • Playing at cooking.
  • Playing at doing yard work.
  • Playing at having a profession.

This sort of play appears to involve enculturation into cultural behaviors. It could represent early enculturation into gender and societal norms and expectations.

Many parents may inadvertently promote gender norms during this from of play, particularly when gifting children gendered gifts (i.e. girls get pretend ovens, boys get toy trucks).

Domestic play has also been identified as very common among low socioeconomic status children, while dramatic play has been identified as more common among middle-class children.

It may be a concern if children do not engage in imaginative play as creative thinking is important for development. Educators can try to introduce fantasy scenarios to promote imaginative play among children.

13. Digital Play

Definition: “Play that takes place on or with the aid of computers, smartphones or other digital devices.

Digital play is a controversial type of play. Many parents and teachers see children on computers and phones and say “I would prefer them to be outside playing.”

Digital play has a stigma of being too passive, a waste of time, and of little educational value.

But some scholars highlight the benefits of online games.

Benefits of digital play include:

  • A challenge to children’s multitasking and time management skills during complex real-time gaming.
  • An opportunity for teamwork and problem solving required for children to pass levels in difficult games.
  • An opportunity for socialization with other children in different parts of the world during online games.
  • A challenge to children’s fine motor skills, particularly in first-person games requiring fast movements.
  • An opportunity to link children’s interests outside of school (i.e. games) to learning outcomes in the curriculum. E.g. children creating worlds on the game Minecraft to develop ideas for creative writing stories (see also: sandbox gaming in education).

Of course, excessive digital play – especially for solitary and repetitive games where no new learning is occurring – could be considered of little educational benefit. There is also the potential of cyberbullying and exposure to inappropriate content online.

Challenges of digital play include:

  • Excessive indoor computer use may be a health risk.
  • Children need ongoing physical activity.
  • Cyberbullying.
  • Online predators.
  • Parents acting as poor mentors on their own devices.

However, digital play is increasingly also being seen as having the potential to challenge children cognitively and socially in the right contexts.

14. Risky Play

Definition: “Risky play is play that involves exposure to danger and potential failure, but also opportunities for overcoming cognitive, physical and psychological challenges.”

Risk taking during play scenarios was strongly restricted during the 1990s and 2000s due to safety concerns. Rising concerns about protecting children from dangers of the outdoors led to constraints on children’s free unimpeded play.

Recent interest in the Scandinavian Forest Schools approach and scholarly research on risky play has highlighted the benefits of taking risks during play.

Taking measured risks helps children to:

  • Identify areas of strengths and weaknesses.
  • Develop their skills in new and difficult scenarios.
  • Develop self-confidence and self-belief.
  • Learn self-regulation skills.

If adults are too cautious with children, they will not get opportunities for self-development. Strong development usually occurs when children face challenges that extend the child’s abilities.

If messages about being overly cautious are repeated, children may also become reluctant and timid about facing adversity.

15. Outdoor Play

Definition: “Play that takes place in outdoor environments, preferably where students are exposed to the climate and nature.”

Outdoor play is uniquely beneficial for children’s development because it:

  • Exposes children to unknown environments that throw up new situations for children to tackle.
  • Exposes children to natural materials that can be manipulated for play purposes, such as sticks, ditches and shrubs.
  • Exposes children to changing natural environments including seasons to teach children about their world.
  • Allows children to exercise gross motor skills in open spaces, which cannot be fully stretched in smaller enclosed spaces such as suburban homes.

The benefits of outdoor play are most significantly promoted by the Forest Schools movement. This educational movement highlights the importance of the human connection with the natural world.

Challenges of outdoor play include:

  • Ensuring children are visible and have clear play boundaries.
  • Ensuring safety is secured, especially when moving vehicles, unknown animals or moving vehicles are in proximity.
  • Ensuring children are dressed appropriately for the weather.

16. Sensory Play

Definition: “Play that involves the intentional use of the five senses through the introduction of sensory materials into the play space.”

Sensory play involves play scenarios set up specifically for children to practice using their five senses:

  • Touch.
  • Smell.
  • Taste.
  • Sight.
  • Hearing.

A sensory play experience will generally involve a resource rich environment in which the adult intentionally sets out materials that stimulate the senses.

The sorts of materials adults might use in sensory play situations include:

  • Vinegar.
  • Colorful paints.
  • Rough textures.
  • Clay.
  • Berries, sweets and garden vegetables.
  • Musical instruments.

Sensory play is particularly beneficial for helping children’s self-expression. Children can choose colors for their paintings that represent their moods, create objects of choice out of clay, or create music that they feel reflects their thoughts and feelings.

17. Oral Language Play

Definition: “Play that involves the intentional use of new language in authentic contexts to extends children’s communication skills.”

Oral language play is a form of play that is designed to help children develop their language and communication skills.

Examples of oral language play include:

  • Playing with new objects to practice saying their names while using them.
  • Working on verb use while playing games that involve actions such as opening, closing, selecting, etc.
  • Games that require description and conversation.

Language is central to all social play, and social play underpins children’s language development.

Language is promoted by:

  • Children conversing with one another.
  • Children having to describe and explain what they are doing during their games.
  • The retelling of events during play.
  • Describing thoughts.
  • Describing cause and effect during story lines.

One of the key reasons language is promoted so well during play is that language is practiced in context. Children have to think about what words will be required to get their messages across, and come across a lot of new contexts in which familiar and unfamiliar words need to be used.

Final Thoughts

Play based learning is one of the best forms of learning for children. It can be far more effective for children’s learning than direct instruction. When they play, children get to experience the world through trial and error and discovery. They learn information in ways that are meaningful and contextualized in their lives.

I like to mix up the types of play that my students engage in so they get to experience all different forms of play and the benefits of each.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

2 thoughts on “17 Types of Play Based Learning in Early Childhood”

  1. Dear Dr. Chris Drew, Greetings from Ethiopia, a developing country in East Africa. I am currently a Ph.D. candidate at Addis Ababa University, focusing on Play-Based Learning for my dissertation. Unfortunately, I am facing challenges due to a lack of sufficient reference materials and funding to successfully complete my research. I humbly request your assistance in any way possible.
    Thank you for considering my request.
    Sincerely, Mr. Tewodros Bekele Tessema

    1. Have you tried Google Scholar? Should be a ton of resources for a literature review. e.g. this one is a good place to start and is available to read from Google Scholar:

      Taylor, M. E., & Boyer, W. (2020). Play-based learning: Evidence-based research to improve children’s learning experiences in the kindergarten classroom. Early Childhood Education Journal, 48, 127-133.

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