Different Types of Play in Early Years
Following on from our blog last week about National Play Day, we wanted to explore the different types of play that babies, toddlers and young children can get involved with. These variations of play form the basis of the Early Years Curriculum – the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) covers the education of children aged 0-5.
Play can be Child-Initiated or Adult-Led. The former is a type of play that is driven by the child. It can also be known as ‘free play’ or ‘creative play’. The child will use their initiative to create their own ideas, drive forward their own activities based on what sparks their interest and curiosity in that moment in time. Young children are forever changing their ideas about what interests them, and they have a wide variety of attention spans. ‘Free play’ allows children to follow whatever amuses them – an adult may join in with their play, but they don’t structure it. Many parents report that watching their child ‘free play’ is joyful as they can see how they are naturally progressing.
The disadvantage of Child-Initiated Play is that children might not push themselves to find new things to do and they sometimes need adult input to help them discover more of a varied experience.
Adult-Led Play is when an adult leads a child in a game or play activity – guiding them step by step. Whilst the child has less independence, they are guided towards completing the steps of a particular play-goal. An example of this would be teaching your child how to play ‘Snap’ or ‘Pairs’ with a pack of matching cards. This type of play should not be confused with Adult-Initiated Play. The latter has less involvement from the adult – they may start the activity off but the child himself or herself will guide themselves within their play. This can be something as simple as suggesting that your child play football – they play with minimal input from the adult going forwards.
There are other types of play which are defined by the activity taking place rather than by the person initiating them. These other types of play styles can be used with either child-led or adult-led play.
Imaginative Play – this is a type of play based around what the child can imagine. It could involve your child pretending to be a certain character, pretending to look after stuffed animals in a ‘vet centre’ or cooking a pretend meal in a toy kitchen. There are two main types of imaginative play – Small World Play and Role-Play. In Small World Play, children use puppets, toys, figures or other small props to act out stories or actions with various different characters. Drawn and bought backgrounds can really enhance the small world experience for your child and it can be adorable watching them come out of their shells using different character voices.
In Role-Play, children take on an actual role themselves – they become the character rather than treat an object as the character. This is where ‘dressing-up clothes’ can really fuel your child’s imagination – examples would be outfits for doctors, nurses, vets, fire-fighters, superheroes…the list is endless. Sharing classic stories too like ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ might also spark your child’s interest to act out the roles of these characters. Masks, including home-made masks are great for really making these characters come alive for your child. Imaginative Play really helps your little one to practise their social and communication skills.
Sensory Play – this is a bit of an umbrella term for play which helps children to explore the world around them using all of their senses. It can be ‘messy’ (hands up if you’ve taken your child to a messy play session!?) but it doesn’t have to be. ‘Hands On Play’ as it also can be called, is particularly developmental as it helps your child to form strong memories of what they are learning. By engaging multiple senses during play, children build stronger links in their brains which in turn makes the memory of the activity more firmly rooted in their minds. Examples are:
Malleable Play - various malleable materials that children can manipulate with their hands or with tools. We mentioned this last week when we referenced the texture of sheepskins and how much child like to play with, tug at and stroke the soft fur. It also includes the more obvious examples of play-dough, clay, water, sand and slime. This type of play builds the tiny muscles in your child’s hands and allows them to practise their fine motor skills. These types of activities are the pre-cursor to little ones young their hands to mark-make and eventually write.
Mud Play – this is a fun and natural type of play that children of early years age can really enjoy. Remember trying to eat mud as a child? You may even have succeeded! Whilst this play-form is messier than some of the activities aforementioned and may require more adult supervision, it is so valuable as it allows your child to get close to nature. Mud Kitchens are great stations where children can make all sorts of cakes, pies and potions whilst also allowing them to engage with their natural environment.
Heuristic Play – this refers to a type of play which uses household objects instead of toys. ‘Treasure baskets’ or ‘Discovery Bags’ stuffed full of everyday (safe) items can really engage your child’s curiosity. Within these familiar objects, children can explore the different types of textures, materials and sensory forms. Through their own investigations, young children can learn a lot about the world around them by exploring these everyday items.
Block Play – the vast majority of children love to play with blocks! Imaginations are ignited when children are left to build all kinds of structures and fine motor skills are developed as they construct. Block Play can really support imaginative play too – why not ask your child to build a house or village which they can then use as a ‘small world’. Work together, depending on how much help your child needs, on constructing a space, figuring out what they want to put in their building and then engage in that space using characters. Children also really enjoy the problem-solving aspect involved in working out how to configure their blocks into their desired object. Their little hands can feel the different types and textures of blocks and their ears can enjoy the sound it makes when it all comes crashing down!
All these types of play are useful for helping children explore news ideas and interests whilst also working on their independence. As discussed, play during your child’s early years can be casual and ‘just for fun’ or directed to encourage completion of a more complicated task. Whether your style as a parent is really quite ‘Child-Initiated’ or more ‘Adult-Led’, it is important to let your child know that their ideas and opinions are valid. The main message in our blog this week is, why not explore the different types of play list above, and just have fun sparking your child’s curiosity!