While play is often seen as something children do for leisure and recreation, play is actually a crucial part of a children’s development. Play is a self-chosen and self-directed activity that is focused on the process of play and not the product of it. Play is individually constructed to meet the child’s desires and needs. Finally, play is imaginative and active (Gray, 2013). Play is children’s work. Through play, children develop cognitive skills and learn new information. They learn and practice social skills, like effective communication, self-regulation, conflict resolution, problem-solving, and cooperation. Furthermore, they learn about themselves by exploring roles, interests, skills, and relationships. Play is how children explore their world.

Types of Play

According to Piaget, children engage in types of play that reflect their level of cognitive development. Originally proposing three levels of play: functional play, symbolic play, and games with rules. Smilansky expanded on Piaget’s model to add a fourth level: constructive play. Each type of play emerges at different ages and stages of cognitive development, and the prominence of the level of play changes with maturation, as well (Johnson, Christie & Wardle 2005).

Functional Play

Functional play is the first type of play activity in which children engage. Functional play involves repetitive, physical actions, language, and manipulation of objects. Beginning in infancy, children learn that they have control of their bodies and objects, and they can act upon those objects. Infants play through repetitive actions, like shaking a rattle, splashing in the bath, or repeatedly dropping toys from their high chair. These basic actions become play when the child deliberately engages in the activity for pleasure (Frost, 1992). Eventually, as children become more cognitively sophisticated, simple, repetitive actions are replaced by more complex, coordinated actions. Functional play is enjoyed by children throughout their childhood, particularly as they discover and practice new motor skills, such as sliding, climbing, stacking, jumping, and bouncing.

Constructive Play

By the age of two, children progress from simple, repetitive functional play to goal-directed, creative activities. When children manipulate objects to create something, they are engaging in constructive play. They use objects like blocks, clay, and craft supplies in an organized way to achieve a goal. Constructive play is a form of hand-on inquiry where children gain knowledge by posing questions, testing ideas, and gathering information (Drew et al., 2008) through experimentation with basic materials to create something more complex. This type of play encourages planning, exploration, and discovery (Child Development Institute, 2010).

Constructive play facilitates the development of imagination, problem-solving skills, fine motor skills, and self-esteem. Build with blocks help children learn spatial relationships. Manipulating objects can translate into comfort with manipulating words, ideas, and concepts. This type of play prepares children for later academic, social, and emotional successes (Leong & Bodrova, 2015) and to be flexible thinking (Bruner 1972). Creating encourages the development of positive self-esteem by offering children power over their environment and a sense of accomplishment (Chaille, 2008). Constructive play also helps children develop character virtues, such as tenacity, flexibility, creativity, courage, enthusiasm, persistence, and adaptability (Child Development Institute, 2010).

Young children tend to prefer constructive play. When given a choice of play activities, preschool children choose constructive play more than 50% of the time (Rubin, Fein, & Vandenberg 1983). Further, constructive play is a way to scaffold play as children transition from function to symbolic play. Children should be encouraged to engage in constructive play by providing children with playtime and play materials for exploration. Providing inspiring materials is key to promoting constructive play.

Symbolic Play

Symbolic play is the ability of children to use objects, actions, or ideas to represent other objects, actions, or ideas in play. These activities may include role-playing or make-believe play, such as pretending to be a baby, firefighter, or monster, and make-believe actions, such as driving a car by moving a pretend steering wheel, or using a banana as a telephone. This level of play is widely considered the most sophisticated play activity during the preschool and kindergarten years. Symbolic play encourages the development of social skills, academic abilities, early literacy concepts, and behavioral self-regulation (Leong & Bodrova 2015).

At around 18-months-old, toddlers begin to engage in pretend play, and type of symbolic play. They use objects to represent something else, like drinking from an empty cup or pretending to feed a doll. As children advance cognitive, linguistically, and socially, their play begins to include fantasy, drama, and imitation. Preschoolers are more capable of playing roles and incorporating social norms in their pretend play. Their role-plays and imagination become more sophisticated, and socialization becomes an important aspect of their play activities. Children assign roles to themselves and others, and their interactions often involve sequenced steps and a predetermined plan. Pretend play allows children to explore various roles and expectations and do participate in activities that they may not otherwise be allowed to explore in the real world. Through pretend play, children learn skills in negotiation, listening, sharing, taking turns, and respecting others’ feelings, thoughts, ideas, and physical space.

The sophistication of symbolic play progresses through several substages. The substages include either the child acting a role, the child using an agent to act a role (such as a doll), or a group of children with different roles. These stages also include different types of objects in the play activity. Children may use objects that resemble the real-life object that this represents, such as using toy food to represent real food. Alternatively, the child may use nonrealistic objects to represent real-life objects, such as using a stick as a for a horse.

Tabel 3.12.1. Substages of symbolic play development

Single pretend transformation toward self with realistic objects Child takes role and uses object that resembles the real object, such as the child pretending to eat toy food.
Object is pretend agent with realistic objects
Child uses object that resembles real objects and that object is treated as if it acts, such as the child has a doll and act as if it is eating.
Single pretend transformation with nonrealistic object
Child uses object that has no resemblance to real objects, such as the child forms a pancake from molding clay.
Pretend role with realistic object Child uses objects associated with a role that resembles real objects, such as the child pretends to be a cook with toy food.
Multiple pretend role transformations with realistic object
Child uses objects that resemble real-world objects while the child takes roles, such as doctor, patient, and nurse while playing with dolls or toy animals.
Pretend role with nonrealistic object
Child uses objects that have no resemblance to real objects, such as using molding clay to construct a farm.
Multiple pretend roles with realistic object Children use objects that resemble real objects, such as a group of children use a toy doctor’s kit and play the roles as doctor, patient, and nurse.
Multiple pretend roles with nonrealistic object
Children use objects that have no resemblance to real objects, such as molding clay to create the pretend setting and designate roles to enact.
Source: Frost et al., 2001  

“In play a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in
the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form; in play it is as though the child were trying to jump above the level of his normal behavior” (Vygotsk,1967, p.16).

While Piaget and others believed different types of play activities were essential to development, Vygotsky’s definition of play was limited to pretend play. He believed that play must include the creation of an imaginary situation, assigning and acting out of roles, and following a set of rules specific to those roles (Bodrova & Leong, 2007). Play is a way for children to learn about symbols and separate thoughts from objects. Vygotsky saw play as a means to help children self-gratify. Through play, children can create fantasy situations to get their needs met, regulate emotions, and delay gratification. This level of play also aids children in learning self-regulation by following the rules and adhering to the roles of the play activity. Vygotsky believed that play provided scaffolding for learning to assist children in operating at the upper-end of their zone of proximal development.

Video 3.12.1. Play: A Vygotskian Approach explains Vygotsky’s beliefs about the functions of play.

Smilansky also emphasized the importance of symbolic and pretend play. Her research in this area found that children that did not engage in this level of play displayed cognitive and emotional delays. This effect was especially present in underprivileged children.  In response, Smilansky proposed that to facilitate children’s development of pretend play, adults should encourage:

  1. Imitative role play. The child pretends to play a role and expresses it in an imitates that role. For example, “I am the teacher, and you are my students.”
  2. Make-believe with objects. Use nonrealistic objects to represent real objects and actions. For example, pretending a stick is a horse and riding it.
  3. Verbal make-believe. Incorporate verbal dialog and descriptions in place of actions. For example, “Let’s pretend I cooked the dinner, and now I am setting the table” when only the last activity is actually imitated.
  4. Persistence in role play. The pretend play episode lasts for at least 10 minutes.
  5. Interaction. Two or more players interact within the context of a play episode.
  6. Verbal communication. There is some verbal interaction with other players related to the play episode (Frost, 1992).

Games with Rules

The final type of play is games with rules. At this level, the play activity has imposed rules that must be followed by the players. To successfully participate at this level of play, children must have the cognitive ability to understand and remember the rules. These games also require the children to self-regulation, curbing their own desires and needs to adhere to the rules of the game. Games with rules are often characterized by logic and order, and as children mature they can develop method and planning in their game playing (Frost et al., 2004).

Through games with rules, school-age children develop an understanding of cooperation and competition. By initiating their own games with rules, children learn the need for rules, how to negotiate with each other, and fairness so that the game is enjoyable for everyone. Team sports and board games are games that have very specific rules and encourage the development of strategy. Electronic games are designed to target children at different stages of development and often encourage the practice and mastery of new skills through challenging tasks and fantasy (Frost et al., 2001).

Parten’s Stages of Social Play

As we consider how play develops through childhood, we must also examine changes in socialization during playing. As children mature, they progress through several stages of non-social and social play. Parten’s stages of social play is a theory that categorizes the ways in which children may socialize while participating in play during different periods of development. Parten observed American children at free play and recognized six different types of play. Three types she labeled as non-social (unoccupied, solitary, and onlooker) and three types were categorized as social play (parallel, associative, and cooperative). Parten also found that once a child has developed the ability to participate in a particular stage of social play, they will use combinations of that stage and earlier stages while playing. However, we find that younger children engage in non-social play more than those older and, by age five, associative and cooperative play are the most common forms of play (Dyer & Moneta, 2006).


The earliest and least common style of play throughout childhood is the unoccupied stage. This is a non-social stage that starts in infancy and may appear as random behavior without a specific goal. During this time, the child is not playing. Sitting or standing still, random movements or movements without purpose that do not meet the above definition of play can all be considered unoccupied time. Infants and toddlers may spend significant parts of their day disengaged from any play, but the amount of time spent unoccupied should decrease as children age.

Solitary Play

Another non-social stage is solitary play. Common in children 2-3 years of age, this style of play involves a child playing alone and maintaining focus on their activity. They do not interact with others, nor are they interested in what others are doing. They also are not engaging in similar activities as the children around them. No matter the play activity, whether functional, constructive, symbolic, or game play, if the child is playing alone then it is solitary play.

Onlooker Play

Onlooker play is the final type of non-social play. During this style of play, children are observing others playing. The child may socialize with the other children, such as commenting on the activities and even make suggestions, but they will not directly join the play. Onlooker play is different from unoccupied play because, while the child is not participating in the play activity, they are engaged in social interaction and active observation. Children can still benefit from play activities that they observe, possibly learning behavior and rules before attempting participation.

Parallel Play

Sometimes seen as a transitory stage from immature non-social types to the more socially mature types of play, parallel play is when a child plays adjacent to, but not with, others. The child plays separately from others, engaged in their own play with their own goals; however, the children are close enough to observe and mimicking other’s behaviors.

Associative Play

Around the age of 3, children will interact with each other and share toys; however, they are not yet working toward a common play goal. This more sophisticated social contact is associative play. The children will engage in the same play activity and show interest in what others are doing, but not in coordinating their activities with those people. There is a substantial amount of interaction involved, but the activities are not in sync.

Cooperative Play

When children are interacting to achieve a common goal, this is cooperative play. The child is interested both in the people playing and in coordinating their activities. In cooperative play, the activity is organized, participants have assigned roles, and children may take on different tasks to reach their shared goal. There is also increased self-identification with a group, and a group identity may emerge. This style of play is more common toward the end of the early childhood stage. Examples would be dramatic play activities with roles, like playing school, or a game with rules, such as freeze tag.

Video 3.12.2. The 6 Types of Play provides an overview of Parten’s stages of social play.

Imaginary Companions

An intriguing occurrence in early childhood is the emergence of imaginary companions. Researchers differ in how they define what qualifies as an imaginary companion. Some studies include only invisible characters that the child refers to in conversation, or plays with for an extended period. Other researchers also include objects that the child personifies, such as a stuffed toy or doll, or characters the child impersonates every day. Estimates of the number of children who have imaginary companions vary greatly (from as little as 6% to as high as 65%) depending on what is included in the definition (Gleason, Sebanc, & Hartup, 2000).

Little is known about why children create imaginary companions, and more than half of all companions have no obvious trigger in the child’s life (Masih, 1978). Imaginary companions are sometimes based on real people, characters from stories, or simply names the child has heard (Gleason et al., 2000). Imaginary companions often change over time. In their study, Gleason et al. (2000) found that 40% of the imaginary companions of the children they studied changed, such as developing superpowers, switching age, gender, or even dying, and 68% of the characteristics of the companion were acquired over time. This could reflect greater complexity in the child’s “creation” over time and/or a greater willingness to talk about their imaginary playmates.

In addition, research suggests that contrary to the assumption that children with imaginary companions are compensating for poor social skills, several studies have found that these children are very sociable (Mauro, 1991; Singer & Singer, 1990; Gleason, 2002). However, studies have reported that children with imaginary companions are more likely to be first-borns or only-children (Masih, 1978; Gleason et al., 2000; Gleason, 2002). Although not all research has found a link between birth order and the incidence of imaginary playmates (Manosevitz, Prentice, & Wilson, 1973). Moreover, some studies have found little or no difference in the presence of imaginary companions and parental divorce (Gleason et al., 2000), the number of people in the home, or the amount of time children are spending with real playmates (Masih, 1978; Gleason & Hohmann, 2006).

Do children treat real friends differently? The answer appears to be not really. Young children view their relationship with their imaginary companion to be as supportive and nurturing as with their real friends. Gleason has suggested that this might suggest that children form a schema of what is a friend, and use this same schema in their interactions with both types of friends (Gleason et al., 2000; Gleason, 2002; Gleason & Hohmann, 2006).