Types of Play for Early Childhood Development


Play is an integral part of early childhood development — but while it is (literally) all fun and games for children, play is also a key component of development that factors into fostering social, cognitive, and motor skills. 

Studies have shown that as children grow, learn about their environment, and develop their abilities, children start to play in different ways, each with a distinct characteristic that contributes to overall development. 

In this article, we’ve outlined the key stages of play in early childhood as well as the different types of play that are encouraged and nurtured during early childhood learning.


The Importance of Play in During Early Childhood

The positive impact of play during early childhood has been well-researched for over a century, with the first signs of evidence-based approaches to play beginning in the 1800s. 

Today, the importance of play is acknowledged by the Australian Government Department of Education with the incorporation of play-based learning as part of the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF). 

Play during early childhood helps children to:

  • Capitalise on their natural curiosity, exploration, and learning instincts.
  • Actively construct their own understandings, contributing to learning process.
  • Integrate their emotions, thinking, and motivation through play experiences, which aids in strengthening brain functioning.
  • Exercise agency, intentionality, and the capacity to initiate and lead learning.
  • Participate in decisions that affect them, including those related to learning.

The Stages of Early Childhood Play

There are six stages of play during early childhood, all of which play an important part in overall development. Each child develops differently, and some may show signs of play at later stages before others, but here’s a general guide:

Onlooker Play

Onlooker play is where children simply watch others play (such as their peers or adults) without joining in. This is especially common in toddlers or younger children who have not yet developed language or communication skills. 

Seeing your child observe rather than participate in playing can be worrying – but rest assured, that this is perfectly normal! The onlooker stage of play is where children are using their visual and auditory senses as well as building the self-confidence to insert themselves into the activity. 

Unoccupied Play

Unoccupied play is one of the first forms of play, seen in babies when they move their hands, feet or body around without. This is an integral part of a child’s journey in learning about their own body. 

Solitary Play 

Also known as non-social play, solitary play is when children choose to play alone rather than with someone else. At this stage, children are engaging with their own interests and curiosities. 

Parallel Play

Parallel play is when children are playing by themselves, but within close proximity of one another. Outside of the occasional observation or copying of movements, children in parallel play will often keep to themselves as they take the opportunity to learn from the other. 

Associative Play

At this stage of play, children will begin to engage with others albeit in a limited way. They might participate in activities alongside their peers without direct interaction, such as sharing building blocks, but choosing to have their own project. 

Cooperative Play

Cooperative play emerges as children collaborate towards shared objectives in their play sessions. Unlike associative play, cooperative play is structured, with frequent communication, sharing, and teamwork present in the activity. 


Different Types of Play in Early Childhood

In addition to the stages of play outlined above, there are also various other types of play that are encouraged or used in early childhood learning settings. Not all children will experience every single type of play, as some will naturally find a preference for a handful over time. It is also common for more than one type of play at a time to occur during an activity. 

Competitive Play

Most often seen in sports activities or simple games, competitive play is when children follow a structured set of rules and guidelines that eventually lead to an outcome of winners and losers. Competitive play is a healthy mode of play that helps children develop teamwork, turn-taking, emotional regulation, and good sportsmanship.

Dramatic/Role Play

Dramatic play sees children placing themselves in imaginary scenarios where they could be a princess or a policeman, and acting out these scenarios according to their creativity and understanding of the context. Dramatic play is often combined with role play, which similarly sees children taking on imaginary roles, but alongside other peers and interacting with them in the appropriate way, such as a shopper and a cashier. These types of play allow children to express their creativity in different ways and also practice their social interaction skills with each other.

Exploration Play

Exploration play happens when children are exposed to new materials or sensations through smelling, touching, or tasting. The inclusion of a physical aspect to this type of play makes it especially engaging for children to learn about new things, such as the roughness of tree bark, or the consistency of jelly. By taking in the information about how an object feels, smells, and tastes, children gain a concrete understanding of them, which encourages their cognitive and motor skill development. 

Expressive Play

Apart from learning how to express themselves through speech, children also frequently take part in expressive play to find new ways of expressing their feelings and emotions. This can range from drawing or painting pictures to making music on a simple instrument. These outlets are a great way for children to unleash their creativity while learning more about how to manage their emotions. 

How To Engage in Play with Your Child

Engaging in play with your child at home is a great way to promote their natural development and growth. When playing with your child, consider the following:

  • Have conversations with your children about what they would like to do. 
  • Keep your play sessions with your child tailored to what they like to hold their interest.
  • Make play sessions dynamic by introducing new elements every now and then. 
  • Build on their ideas to give them more confidence in expressing their creativity. 

At Eikoh Seminar, we love working with parents to ensure that their child gets the most out of their play sessions at home and in our preschools. If you would like to find out more about the play-based curriculum we offer at our Sydney childcare centres in St Ives, Roseville, Normanhurst, and West Ryde, get in touch with our team today.