What is Play

Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.

Friedrich Froebel

Play is the primary means through which children interact with the world around them. Children play in various ways, which play expert Bob Hughes broke down into 16 observable play types, and Play Scotland have grouped according to their function for child development as well as curricular links.

Autistic children are known to present with a number of differences in terms of play development and behaviours which can sometimes be a cause of concern for parents and educators. This is because play is a crucial part of healthy development and wellbeing, from early childhood right through adolescence.  

  • The function of play

Play is how children make sense of the world. It has a significant role in childhood development and is the means through which children of all ages acquire essential life skills. The benefits of play are broad and encompass physical, cognitive, social and emotional elements. 

Physical: Through physically active play children develop motor skills, co-ordination, balance and flexibility. The World Health Organization recommends that children aged 5-17 years engage in 60 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day. This helps children maintain a healthy weight, improves cardiovascular health, strengthens bones, muscles and joints, and increases immunity to disease. 

Cognitive: Play allows children to build connections to the world around them by exploring, investigating, comparing and categorizing, and engaging in pretend play. This is linked to a range of cognitive benefits including creativity, imagination, problem-solving, abstract thinking, language skills, self-regulation, attention, concentration, and executive function. 

Social: Playing with others supports children to develop a range of social skills, such as sharing, cooperation, and conflict resolution. During play, children collaborate, negotiate and form rules together, and form friendships with their peers.  

Emotional: Through play children experience joy and develop empathy, compassion and self-esteem. Play also has therapeutic and restorative properties which support the development of resilience and adaptability, helping children to self-regulate and cope with stress. 

These benefits are enhanced in the outdoor environment, where play tends to be more active, social and sensory in nature than play which takes place indoors. 

Play is often incorporated in early years curricula in recognition of its role in children’s development and wellbeing. Research supports the value of play-based learning and opportunities for free play throughout the school day. 

Children’s play develops in stages, starting at birth. Each stage reflects the child’s developing social skills and the changing ways in which they interact with those around them as they learn to communicate, problem-solve, self-advocate and resolve conflicts. The stages (Parten, 1932) are outlined as follows: 

Unoccupied play (0-3 months) – The seemingly aimless movement of babies, such as kicking their legs or flapping their arms, represents the earliest stage of play as children learn and discover how their body moves. 

Solitary play (0-2 years) – The child is content to play alone and appears uninterested in what others around them are doing. 

Onlooker play (2 years) – The child will observe the play of others but not join in at this stage. They may ask questions to find out more about the play.

Parallel play (2-3 years) – Children play side-by-side but do not interact with each other. They may play with similar toys and learn social skills via observation and copying. 

Associative play (2-4 years) – At this stage the child is more interested in playing with others, and may talk and engage with one another and swap toys. There are no specific rules and although playing together the children may all be doing different things.

Cooperative/social play (4-6 years) – The child plays with others and has an interest in both the activity and the other children they are playing with. They begin to share toys and ideas, and play follows established rules and guidelines. 

As children progress through the stages, play becomes more complex and involves increasing interaction with others. The later stages in particular rely on social skills such as turn-taking, compromising and problem solving, which may prove difficult for autistic children.

Children’s play takes many forms. It can be loud, active and social, but it can also be quiet, focused and solitary. Categorising play is useful for playworkers and professionals as each type of play develops different skills in the child. The taxonomy developed by Bob Hughes is a commonly used model in play policy and planning within the UK and Ireland. 

Hughes (2002) identifies 16 types of play: 

Communication play – Play that involves words, signals and body language, for example joke telling, singing, rhyming games and charades.

Creative play – Play which involves experimenting and creating with a range of materials or tools, where there is plenty of time and where getting messy is not a problem.

Deep play – Play which enables children to encounter risk, challenge and dangerous experiences, for example balancing on a high wall, jumping over a stream and riding a bike with no hands.

Dramatic play – The playing of dramatic events that the child has not been a participant in, for example pretending to be a footballer, a pop star at a concert, playing doctors, or presenting a television show.

Exploratory play – Play which involves finding out information through manipulation of an object, for example handling clay, or taking a bicycle apart to see how it works and ‘fixing it’.

Fantasy play – Play at pretend in ways that are unlikely to occur in real life, for example being a superhero.

Imaginative play – Play based on reality but not real, for example pretending to be an animal, having a make-believe friend or being an aeroplane.

Locomotor play – Movement for its own sake, for example playing chase, running, jumping, skipping and climbing trees.

Mastery play – Control of the natural environment, for example making a dam in a stream, building a campfire, digging holes and making mounds in earth and sand.

Object play – Play in which objects are explored using sequences of hand-eye manipulations and movements in order to explore them, sort them or make something, for example constructing a model out of building blocks. 

Recapitulative play – Play which allows children to explore ancestry, rituals, stories, rhymes, fire and darkness evoking earlier stages of human evolution, for example, dressing up in historic clothing and role playing, making weapons and having battles, building shelters and growing and gathering plants. 

Role play – Play that explores trying out roles not normally experienced, for example driving a car or doing the washing.

Rough and tumble play – Play that involves play fighting, tumbling, tickling, play with body contact, but no deliberate hurting where children involved are laughing and squealing and from their facial expressions obviously enjoying themselves.

Social play – Playing with others where the rules for social engagement can be explored, for example turn-taking games, making things together or creating a club.

Socio-dramatic play – The recreation of scenes from children’s lives, for example playing families or house.

Symbolic play – The use of objects or signs to represent other things, for example a stick to represent a sword or a broom to represent a horse.

As is the case with the stages of play, some children will struggle more than others to engage with more socially complex, imaginative, or physically demanding forms of play. 

Children require a balance of play types for their healthy development, and this can be supported by a well-designed outdoor play space, modelling of social play behaviours and planning for outdoor play in the curriculum.