If you pay attention to your little one, you’ll notice that he plays in different ways, often with the very same toy. If you’ve ever wondered why he does this, you’re in luck: Play is one of the most studied topics in child development, and dozens of researchers have wondered the same thing.
Because there’s so much research on play, there are different theories about it (one of which we explored in our article about why babies and toddlers play alone together). Let’s follow the work of Dr. Kenneth Rubin, researcher and professor at the University of Maryland, who describes these different types of play:
4 Types of Play
Functional play is playing simply to enjoy the experience. Infants engage in functional play when they trade smiles with a caregiver, or squeeze a soft toy over and over. A toddler’s functional play could be climbing on a play structure, or banging two blocks together to hear the sound. Functional play helps little ones learn about the world through their senses, supports social-emotional development, and strengthens motor skills.
As the name suggests, this play involves constructing something (building, drawing, crafting, etc.). Unlike functional play, constructive play is goal-oriented. The onset of constructive play shows that little ones are developing the ability to plan. Remember those two blocks our toddler was banging together? Now he is stacking one on top of the other, constructing a tower. This play promotes creativity and problem solving, and gives children a sense of accomplishment.
During exploratory play, a child examines something closely in order to learn more about it. Our toddler gets a new set of blocks, for example, and studies one of them by looking at it from all angles while slowly turning it in his hands. Exploratory play helps children learn cognitive and language concepts such as shape, size, color, function, and spatial awareness. Even in infancy, babies “play” by intently observing their surroundings.
Also known as symbolic or pretend play, this emerges alongside a big cognitive shift: Understanding that objects, actions, or ideas can represent other objects, actions, or ideas. It’s the beginning of witnessing toddlers’ imaginations come to life.
Symbolic play starts with a toddler pretending in a concrete way: Holding a toy phone to his ear and pretending to talk. This evolves into creating a story: Going back and forth between talking on the toy phone and handing it to a parent to take a turn talking. The next phase involves more abstract play: Holding a block to his ear and pretending it’s a phone.
Because symbolic play is such an important developmental leap, we gave it its own article, so head over there to learn more.
As toddlers enter preschool and elementary school, symbolic play continues to evolve. Not only do they act out increasingly complex and abstract pretend stories, the appearance of cooperative play (around age 4) leads to co-creating imaginative scenarios with peers.
Cooperative play also leads to another level of play: Games with rules. Agreeing on, following, and adjusting rules is central to social-emotional development, and teaches children to use logic, fairness, and problem solving in order to interact successfully.
How to Encourage Play
By now the internet is abuzz with what child development experts have long been emphasizing: Play is central to every aspect of development – including motor skills, language, problem solving, emotional intelligence, and social interaction.
The most important thing you can do to encourage play, is encourage play! Give your child plenty of time for both structured and unstructured play, and remember that during the early years his best friend is YOU. One day he and a peer will construct a three-story garage out of blocks and park toy cars inside, but to get there he needs to start on the floor with you, pushing a toy car around while you both squeal, “Vroom!”