What are the main types of play?

What are the main types of play?

Play comes in lots of different forms and each type of play serves different purposes and benefits children in different ways at different stages of their development. The common types of play in young children include:

  1. Physical play
  2. Sensory play
  3. Pretend play
  4. Constructive play
  5. Dramatic play

Physical play

Physical play involves movement, from big moves, such as running, jumping and climbing, to smaller movement like cutting with scissors or unscrewing a lid. Big physical play helps children develop their gross motor skills and coordination. Gross motor skills are those that require whole body movement. Physical play can help…

  • strengthen the large muscles in the arms, legs and torso,
  • refine balance,
  • improve resistance and flexibility.

Toys that are ideal for big physical play are things like climbing frames, balance boards, balls and frisbees. Playing outdoors is perfect for obvious reasons.

Smaller physical play improves children’s fine motor skills. Fine motor skills are activities that use the smaller muscles in your hands and wrists essential for precision. 

Practising small physical play helps with lots of everyday tasks like holding a pencil, brushing teeth, buttoning clothes, turning the page of a book, opening doors and tying shoelaces.

When it comes to smaller physical play lots of toys will benefit children’s fine motor skills, such as toy cars, blocks and doll’s outfits. Offer a variety of toys that require different small movements, such as screwing, twisting, pinching, pressing, holding, pouring and balancing.

Sensory play

This type of play involves using the senses, such as touching, smelling, tasting, and listening. Sensory play helps children develop their senses and their understanding of the world around them.

In babies sensory play is often experienced on play mats, textured books, crinkling toys and squeaky, squidgy baby bath toys. As they grow into toddlers they start to independently explore and test objects and toys, putting things in their mouths to understand the texture, taste and sensations different objects bring. Sensory tubs or trays filled with rice, sand, water or other taste-safe items are a nice way of offering sensory play. Musical instruments are great for children to explore sounds and cause and effect.

Exploring by using all their senses deepens children’s understanding of materials and objects. This is essential for the next type of play.

Pretend play

Pretend play covers both role play and small world play and involves using the imagination.

Playing with dress-up clothes, play food and dolls are all types of role play, where your child acts out a scenario or pretends to take on a role or profession, like a doctor. Role play can help children develop their…

  • communication and language skills,
  • social skills like collaboration,
  • understanding of different perspectives and empathy for others,
  • creativity and imagination,
  • knowledge of other cultures,
  • problem solving skills,
  • emotional skills and expression of feelings.

Play sets, figures and toy cars are more often used in small world play. This is where your child creates a world in which their toys live. Small world play brings similar benefits to children’s role play. Children can act out scenarios through the characters that inhabit the little world they’ve created.

Constructive play

Constructive play involves building and creating. Wooden blocks, puzzles, art materials and other toys that require fixing together are perfect for this type of play. Constructive play helps children develop their…

  • fine motor skills,
  • creativity and imagination,
  • problem-solving abilities,
  • focus on achieving a goal (such as building the tallest tower),
  • experimentation skills,
  • and spatial awareness.

According to Jean Piaget a famous child psychologist, children have already been through a stage called functional play before they’re ready to construct. This means they’ve felt materials, understood sizes and size relationships, had experience of what prevents them falling and explored them with their various senses, through sensory play.

Dramatic play

This type of play involves acting and storytelling. Children can take part in dramatic play on their own, with other children or with adults taking part in some way. They might use props like puppets and playhouses and costumes to enhance their play and help set the scene. Dramatic play helps children develop their…

  • creativity,
  • language skills,
  • social interactions,
  • understanding of their surroundings,
  • and communication skills.

Dramatic play provides children the opportunity to work through emotions and develop expressive language.


Each child is unique and may enjoy some types of play more than others. The age and stage your child is at is also a big factor in the type of play they most take part in. For example dramatic play takes place at a later stage than sensory play, which can be enjoyed from birth all through childhood and even into adulthood. What’s most important is to provide a variety of play opportunities and to let your child explore and discover what they enjoy.

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