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Learning About Play (1): Types of Play

I remember back in the first year of being a student-teacher, we were being thrown into the discussion of “What is play?” and the long list of definition and purposes of play to memorise for our exams. There are so many theorists and big names behind the definition and purposes of play.

The motivation to play is intrinsic and natural. Play is building on new knowledge and skills while interacting with the elements in the environment.

While the importance of play is not new to any parent, it is difficult for parents to accept that play is part of learning and children CAN learn through play effectively. I thought I will share some basic information of play first.

I have some suggested toys that I see children use often in each type of play. Do note that each suggested toy doesn’t only cover on one type of play, and the process of play and the materials used may overlap. I try to keep the suggestions as open-ended as possible to encourage creativity.

Fantasy and Imaginative Play


A child setting up a kitchen scene pretending to cook. Or pretending to be a fairy with a stick as a magical wand. Or being engrossed in their small-world play. If their minds were portrayed in a video screen for us to watch, you will probably see them in an entirely different world.

Children use a wide range of materials, open-ended and specific items, to create and represent their own ideas and understanding of the world through imaginative play. Some theorists believe that pretend play help children to learn life skills that are necessary to have to function in the real world.

Toys you might want to include: Scarves, pots, pan, bowls, dolls, soft toys, thematic items (e.g. doctor’s kit, picnic basket).


Constructive Play

WaterMark_2019-11-15-01-04-14From building towers of blocks to connecting links, these are concrete materials for children to create something to represent something. For toddlers and younger preschoolers, construction might be just putting things together to form something. As they grow to be more imaginative, construction play might be just the beginning and will evolve to pretend and fantasy play. Children do spend a great deal of time constructing and planning what they are going to do as they are constructing.

Also see: Cleaning Up After Play

I believe arts and crafts is important in child’s play and creation, so I’m going to categorise children creating 2D and 3D works to be part of constructive play too.

Toys you might want to include: Lego / Duple bricks, wooden blocks, magnetic tiles, link cubes, link rings,  Mobilo, bristle blocks, cardboard tubes, boxes, strings, tape, basic art supplies, sewing and knitting materials.


Sensory Play


A well-known type of play, but probably also often neglected. Many parents feel that sensory play is messy and a lot of preparation work. To be honest, the sensory play in my house is usually last-minute and basically is just opening my dried food drawers to check what can be added into their sensory tray.

Sensory play is providing the sensory experiences through materials such as sand, water, play dough, clay, scents and aroma, and touch.

While one of the biggest and more direct outcome for sensory play is developing the fine motor skills and learning about cause-and-effects as children scoop and transfer the liquid and grains. Many of us forget sensory play has a therapeutic and calming effect on children, which in turn will help children to regulate their emotions and calm themselves down. Now cue the throwing and scattering of the beans! Yes, that is their outlet or natural urges to explore their world. I will share about how I manage messy play another time, but a quick suggestion is to take them outdoor to nature, it uses a lot of their the senses and you don’t really have to worry about cleaning up the mess (e.g. sand, dried leaves, mud).

Toys you might want to include: Outdoor nature (leaves, sticks, stones, bark, sand) dried goods, water, handy scoopers, sensory balls (great for the babies and toddlers!), herbs and spices in smelling jars, handy scoopers, funnels, sandcastle toy set, sand and water runners, play dough, clay.


Explorative Play


This type of play involves senses too, but more specifically to find out how something feels like (texture) or how the object works together and how it function in the real world.

This may overlap construction play, especially if the toy is new, the child might need more time to figure out how to put the toys together and trying out various ways to connect and balance the objects.

Toys you might want to include: Measuring beakers, magnifying glasses, clear boxes, water, sand, tweezers, light box with opaque and semi-transluscent materials, magnets (get magnet wands!)


Gross Motor: Locomotor and Rough and Tumble Play


Locomotor skills consist of actions that will move your body from one place to another, such as jumping, walking and running. I decided to park “rough and tumble play” here as well and group them as  gross motor play.

Crawling, climbing and having fun tumbling about not only develops the large body muscles, such play promotes better balance, coordination and even cognitive development. A child needs good muscle control to effectively learn new skills.


Rough and Tumble play is usually not encouraged in our culture, and is often neglected in children’s play. There are benefits of rough and tumble play, such as the children testing their own strengths and limits, learning the position of their bodies and how to keep themselves safe, and many social learning opportunities that come with it (e.g. checking to see if anyone is in the way before they somersault, safe areas to poke and hit friend during pretend fights).

Toys you might want to include: The dad, kick-scooter, tri/bicycle, hula hoops, long cardboard tubes for sword fighting, large pillows. Or simply bring your child to any playground.


Directed and Scaffolded Play


This is the type of play where adults step in to encourage, prompt and extend learning in the child’s play. Often, adults have the learning objectives and goals in mind, or probably set up an invitation to play with pre-determined material, and allowing the child to later add on. This is not a full control from the adult, it is  stillpretty much child-initiated, just with an adult guiding the play to a specific learning area. Such play provides great opportunity for language development and bonding time between the adult and child (or very few children).

Toys you might want to include: Yourself.


There are many terms and definition for different type of play out there in different education and parenting resources. I am just categorising them to the most frequent types of play in broad category as a parent point of view. I hope this post paints a better picture of the different types of play your child is engaging in, and increasing the frequency of certain types of play through introducing those suggested toys and materials to your child’s playtime.

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