Different Types of Play

When observing kids at play, I've always thought in terms of the developmental benefits of the play (cognitive, language, motor, social or emotional), or the kind of play being carried out (eg. art and craft, building, imaginative, dramatic etc.) As a Kindergarten Teacher (and a mum), these classifications really work when it comes to identifying play and it's benefits and planning for future activities.

I've just read a book by Dr David Elkind called "The Power of Play: How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier, Healthier Children ", which categorises play in a different way to what I've read before. It's really helped me to look at play a little differently and value it even more (which I didn't really think was possible!). Of course, the book raises a lot of important, valuable points about play, but these classifications have really stuck with me.

Dr Elkind categorises play into the 'types' of play children engage in and what I like about these categories is that they look at play from the child's perspective and why the child is personally motivated to play in that particular way.

The types of play Dr Elkind outlines are
1) Mastery Play
2) Innovative Play
3) Kinship Play and
4) Therapeutic Play

I've been looking at my kids' play with different eyes over the last couple of weeks as I bear these in mind and it really has helped me to value play even more.

For example, Ed was turning the 'lazy susan' (a rotating plate) I have on my dining room table a couple of weeks ago. He asked if he could play with it and I said yes. He started to experiment with it, turning it quickly and then slowly. This was "Mastery Play" at work.

Mastery play is when a child is using play to help them to master a new skill or object and this is what Ed was doing here. He was experimenting with the 'lazy susan' to find out how it worked.

Once he had that worked out, he moved on to "Innovative Play". Innovative play is what children do once they have mastered a skill or object. They then engage in play that is imaginative and creative, with new variations on what they have already learnt. Ed started to put things onto the 'lazy susan' and spin it really fast so that the objects (cars mostly of course) would fly off in all directions. Then he would load on as many as he could and see if he could get them all off with a spin.

Normally I would have looked at this play in terms of the cognitive and motor benefits this kind of play was providing, but seeing it as Ed's way to master something new and then innovate with what he had learned, made me value the play even more.

"Kinship Play" is something I'm seeing with my children more and more as they get older. Kinship play is when children invent games or play for the purpose of developing a friendship or relationship. If you watch children who don't know each other, you can see this type of play in action. Often the play doesn't involve talking, but will involve some kind of gesture to get a friendship up and running.

With children who know each other, you can hear it in the games they develop to just be together. Looking at this type of play in this way has really helped me with my two kids. As they get older, they play more and more games that to this grown up looking in, seem a bit silly really.

Their current favourite is to play "Tom and Jerry" or "Tweety and Sylvester" (they love the cartoons). I have to admit, this play was driving me a little crazy before I read this book. It all seemed a little pointless and just involved a lot of screaming, loud noises, running and talking in funny voices. Looking at the play as their way of bonding and strengthening their relationship has given me a new tolerance for it and even helped me to encourage it along.

I love the classification of "Therapeutic Play". I've often watched kids at play and thought about how peaceful and happy and 'in the moment' they looked. I've also listened to a lot of dramatic and imaginative play and marvelled at the social and emotional insights and development going on. I love that Dr Elkind has identified the value of this and called it children's therapy.

When Ed lies on his car mat and just brrmms his cars backwards and forwards or when Em comes home from school and plays out her day in her own pretend 'school' or when they sit in a lovely warm bath at the end of the day and gently pour water from one cup into another, they're undergoing a type of therapy that helps them. What a lovely thought. Hopefully all these hours of therapy I've provided them in their Early Years will save them from hours of therapy when they grow up.

So, there you have it, Dr Elkind's ideas about the types of play children engage in. What do you think and what types of play are going on at your house?

If you'd like to read a review of Dr Elkind's book, I like this one.


  1. That is such a fantastic way of looking at play, I really like it. Think I might have to write down those different types of play and stick it up on the wall to remind me. Definitely going to be looking up the book. Thank you.

  2. This book looks wonderful - thanks for the review. I also reviewed a book on Play recently on Kids Book Review http://kids-book-review.blogspot.com/2010/08/review-play.html - it was fascinating because it also talked about play in adults... something we can reclaim, not only through our kids, but within ourselves. Love it.