Types of Play 


Solitary play

- where the child engages in play either completely alone or keeps a low profile with his activities.

Just as it is important for a child to be with others, it is also important that the child has time and space for being on his own and can isolate himself voluntarily with his toys.

A small child plays solitary play the first twelve months of his life. Solitary play forms the basis of the child’s learning the basic rules and laws of existence. The child experiments and manipulates objects and toys on his own in a variety of situations in order to get to know his immediate surroundings.

Solitary play continues even though the child grows older and begins to play with others. Everything has to be tested and sorted even though the things in themselves do not have much to do with one another. The child still learns on his own what is possible/impossible and in this way he learns to recognise reality and the limits of what is possible.

From the age of 3-4 years, the child is able to participate in social play groups whilst solitary play becomes a means by which to be alone, to potter about with interesting things and to test them for himself. Solitary play is part and parcel of being able to show, alone and to others, the things he can do on his own and the things with which he needs help.

For older children, solitary play and isolation are ways in which to be on one’s own, to work quietly on pastimes, hobbies or projects which contribute to the development of the child’s concentration, perseverance, endurance and intellect.


Parallel play

The child engages in an activity alongside but not with others.

Classic parallel play is the situation in which a child plays on the floor with his toys, close to an adult who is working on something else.

When children play alongside each other in parallel play, they perform the same actions, do the same things and generally try to be identical in their ways of doing things and to achieve the same results. They mimic and mirror each other’s actions.

Mimicry is the basis on which to learn or acquire an ability which another child in parallel play already masters. Mirroring another person’s actions - testing the other person’s behavioural pattern - represents possibilities for finding out whether one’s own mastery of things is as good as the other person’s.

A classic pattern is two small children playing parallel in a sand box with sand and sand toys. They neither interfere nor intervene in each other’s way of doing things. They don’t borrow or steal each other’s spade or sieve because, even at a very young age, children know that this leads to conflict.

When one child turns his bucketful of sand out to make a sand castle, the other child does the same. When they talk or sing, it’s only to themselves - but they do listen to each other and each child individually keeps tabs on what the other child is doing.

Older children play parallel too - both for the sake of play and for the learning process inherent in it. In contrast to the under threes, older children’s play is social. This means that mutual conversation and dialogue are exchanged during play, thus achieving a balance in the execution of tasks and the evaluation of the result.

“Let’s pretend I’m big sister/Mummy”, carrying out the same action and attitudes in parallel is imitation, copying and mimicking. This is a mixture of parallel play and imitation play.


Group play

Through play, the child engages in activities with another person or several other people in which the participants are engaged with the same aim or purpose for the game/activity.

Group play demands social behaviour. By this we mean that it is expected that participants keep to the rules of the game and are sociable, co-operative and willing to help one another. But these important things first have to be learned and understood.

Children are not ready to understand and play group play until they are 3-4 years old. Until then, their play is solitary play and parallel play. Group play is the motivation for the child’s being able to participate in complex social association at many levels later in life and to build deep, personal and lasting connections.

Group play is free play which does not necessarily have to have a motivation but often arises from a common subject or interest which is played and experimented with. In group play where an older child controls the free play, even small children under three years of age can adhere to the norms and rules which form the framework for the game.

As mentioned, there does not have to be a basic motivation for the play. The free processes and incidental situations which occur can also form the basis for social interaction within a group.

For organised group play in the form of circle games (traditional, cultural games), it is imperative that the participants understand the rules. The basic motivation for the game is inclusion in or exclusion from the group (circle).


Role play

In play the child accepts a role to play.

Role play can be played alone but there are very often two or more participants in a so-called social interaction in which the roles and functions are divided between the participants. Role play forms the basis of the child’s gaining knowledge and capabilities about functions and roles in everyday life - and the child has an opportunity to experiment and test possibilities.

Around the age of six years, the child also begins to experiment with dreams and imaginary pictures which lie outside the familiar roles and functions of everyday life. Role play can either be instructive or imitative (see below).

For example: an adult will often assume the role of the horse. The small child plays the role of the rider. But the question is whether a small child understands and can play his role. For a child under three years, the game is just pure fun or hard work in order to learn something about daily life.

The roles of the people who make decisions are often distributed in advance. In instruction play the child sets himself and/or others in a scene. An older child will often accept a role where he gives a younger child guidance. The situation is motivated by an everyday function.

In imitation play, the child recreates, mimics, copies or demonstrates (through play) a role with which he is already familiar. The child will often parody the role.


Functional play

Through play, the child experiences sensory stimulation as simple, repeated, muscular movements.

In order to get sensory stimulation through functional play, implements and toys are needed. But simple objects can also be utilised. Small children’s functional play represents a testing of their physical capabilities: what can I do? what is possible? let me try! These games and exercises are repeated again and again.

The same applies to older children. The toys and requisites become more sophisticated and require more training, skill and better balance. The child experiments in exceeding physical and psychological limits. The social community is often a significant part of functional play in which children can  get a shared experience of getting “high” on the game itself.


Dramatic play  

In play, the child dramatises real situations or gives life to an inanimate thing.

So-called real situations which children dramatise, play or enact do not have to be copies of realistic events which they recognise from everyday life or have seen in reality. Just as often, children fantasise or invent situations or episodes or “steal” them from fictional entertainment, from cartoons, TV or films.

If the drama is led or the scene set by adults, we say that this is no longer play but a play activity, controlled by adults with the children as actors. Children under three years are too small and are not able to recognise and understand the story behind the imaginative types of characters which the adults have dressed the children up as and get them to copy.

Until children reach the ages of 5-6 years they primarily dramatise episodes in their own world or in fictive situations with which they are emotionally interested, e.g. “poor children being taken care of at the children’s home by the nice nurses”.

Older children’s imaginative and dramatic play is often completely removed from the situations of everyday, real life and can be very fictive and unreal. Older children can be pirates, aliens on a distant, springy planet, super athletes in the circus of the future - or they can parody “frightened kids climbing for the first time”.


Repetition play

In play, the child repeats previous games, activities and modes of behaviour.

In repetition play children progress through something which they have previously studied or tested out. There is nothing new in redoing or repeating.

From time to time it can be difficult to distinguish between imitation play and repetition play. The difference will most often lie in the fact that, in imitation play, the child imitates or copies a human role while, in repetition play, actions have something to do with the “way” in which things are done.

We often see the picture of a small child redoing or repeating the same function or mode of behaviour: this is repetition play. For the very small child, the repetition includes sensing, testing and the pleasure found in repetition, even when the mode of behaviour is stereotype.

Household tasks can, for example, often be a game for older children even though the same piece of work has to be done over and over again. This combined form of play and doing a chore thus becomes repetition play.


Conversation play

In play, the child actively listens or talks to another child, a peer or to an adult.

The conversation or dialogue demands trust and acceptance between the participants. Conversation is an exchange of points of view/attitudes. A dialogue is an exchange of points of view between two equal parties who both seek to achieve common understanding. Conversation play is therefore both play and experimentation with the principles of conversation/dialogue on a common topic/point.

For 3-6 year-old girls playing together, chat and conversation are ways in which to exchange experiences and ideas about whatever it is the girls are sharing, e.g. the dolls’ house furniture or functional figures. The dolls’ house is a means for communicating and testing out everyday experiences. They play out events and episodes from everyday life.

The girls’ mutual relationship is reflective and conversational. It is built on mutual solidarity and they switch in the process between being the speaker and the listener. In their conversation, boys are message and product oriented.

A dialogue between an older child and an adult can easily become a playful form of exchanging ideas and finding solutions to everyday problems and possibilities. The child seeks the adult’s experience and attitude whilst experimenting to find the best solution.


Fantasy play

In play, the child acts out a motif from a dream or something imagined.

The concepts of fantasy and creativity are part of any game. Being imaginative is having the ability to imagine both concrete and abstract possibilities. Fantasy play is imagination. Being creative is having the ability to put imagination into practice. For children, putting something into practice is often the same thing as playing: demonstrating thoughts and dreams through actions. There are three forms of fantasy play, which here will be described through the example “driving the car”:

Concrete Play - Through play, the child interprets recognition and knowledge about realities and reality. Small children with limited experience of everyday life play concrete fantasy play. Their play reflects reality.

Diffuse Play - Through play, the child distorts and parodies recognition and knowledge about realities and reality. Reality is distorted through play and subject to imagination and testing.

Abstract Play - Through play, the child seeks to abstract and innovate. This is often demonstrated by a totally alternative form and signalling.


Construction play

In play, the child creates or builds something with materials. Construction play includes constructing ideas or strategies correlating to the possibilities inherent in the available materials.

Construction is stacking, making an accurate copy, shaping (in both hard and soft materials) but also sampling (getting to know something through experimenting, testing to gain experience). Construction play includes construction, destruction and reconstruction. The game depends very much on the type of materials being played with.

A small child constructs by sampling in a diffuse way with no special wish to make anything look like anything else. The desire to make a model which looks like something does not occur until the child has gained experience from reality.

In construction play with larger materials, accessory functions in themselves are part of the satisfaction of play. For example, pulling lots of nails out of a piece of wood can also be an interesting part of the play/construction process.

Construction play with complicated toys or materials can lead to children choosing social or collective solutions. Perseverance and intellect are a prerequisite for this and collective solutions also demand maturity and powers of concentration.


Games with rules

The child engages in a competitive play activity with rules and limitations which are established in advance.

Rules give the limits for what is permitted in play or in a game. The place, area or pitch is also limited.

Games are competitions in which there is a winner and a loser. All games are a simulated form of reality and the players/participants gain a physical and psychological experience which can be put to good use in other contexts. In the classical family games, e.g. Monopoly, there is an unwritten rule that cheating is allowed as long as you don’t get caught. Cheating is most often viewed as poor sportsmanship.

Many outdoor games are a part of children’s culture which is passed on from one generation of children to the next. Back in history, these games with their fixed set of rules were also played by adults. Many of the games had connections to a specific seasonal celebration. Modern sports and games have judges or referees who check that the rules are adhered to. Children naturally also play these games and will often check between them that the rules are upheld.


Exploratory play

Through play, the child seeks sensory and emotional information.

Experience is always connected to the sensed world. Seeking sensory or emotional information can be a conscious or an unconscious process. There are five senses (hearing, sight, touch, smell, taste) and “the sixth sense” - intuition. For ordinary, healthy children, recognition is a good feeling connected with enjoyment. If a child has many negative feelings about certain situations and problems, he will often develop serious traumas.

Recognising nature, the changing seasons, the chill of the snow and the perfume of flowers is a very intense experience for many children. They forget themselves whilst sensing things occurring in their environment. Small children’s feelings for, e.g. animals, sensing their size, proportions and movements are always a great experience. A little girl can be fascinated by e.g. a large horse and curiosity gives her the courage to feed it whilst her intellect tells her that she must keep at a safe distance. She distances herself from the sensory aspect by intellectualising the situation.

Sensing with the naked body is the total sensory experience. The child thus becomes one with his surroundings and senses the sound of the waves breaking on the shore, the cool breeze and the spray against his skin and the wind in his hair.


Onlooker Play 

The child observes the behaviour and activities of other children.

Observing other children’s way of doing things is a prior condition for learning how to do the same things himself. The child’s ability to observe, learn and understand develops independently of his opportunities for play, experimenting and experiencing. Girls draw and chat together about themes and motifs whilst simultaneously observing each other’s way of doing things. Boys do the same in their play and, in particular, they copy patterns of action and attitudes.

In play between siblings, children observe each other’s way of experimenting in order to learn how to develop techniques and possibly improve upon them. A small child learns from his older siblings.



In play, the child engages in physical play activities.

Rough-and-tumble and horseplay are often very violent and chaotic (noise, fun and games). The process of the play is uncoordinated and uncontrolled. Small children play rough-and-tumble alongside other children. Until the child is about three years old, he is still insecure about chaotic and uncontrollable movements carried out in close proximity to other children.

Girls, for example, play that they are dancing and end up tumbling around in such a way that they are on the point of falling over but regain their balance at the very last moment. In the rough-and-tumble play of children from six years, touching each other - for fun - is also a possibility.

Classic boys’ play - fighting for the fun of it, attacking each other in play or shooting each other down - is always great fun. These wild games often become totally chaotic while the idea is not to injure or hit each other.


Aggression play

Through play, the child expresses discomfort, anger or opposition using physical or psychological means.

Aggression play is in fact the opposite of aggression. In aggressive play, the child plays with forms of expression such as animosity, anger and physical attack in an attempt to gain knowledge of them - not to carry them out in practise.

When boys and girls play individually alongside one another, it is the boys one notices first. They are most extrovert and they make a lot of noise. It is in boys’ play that one finds aggression and violence expressed most clearly. This has meant that boys (and men) are often seen as having the monopoly on being extrovert, vigorous and aggressive.

Whenever girls’ aggression, anger or violence occurs, this is not nearly as clearly expressed. Girls’ aggression is therefore often described as being almost non-existent or partly invisible.

Boys play war, violence, attack, death, etc. Girls play home, cosiness, security, peace, etc. The question is whether there isn’t in fact just as much cosiness and security concealed in boys’ play as in the girls’? - i.e. camouflaged in rules, agreements, co-operation and irony. In the girls’ play there is just as much violence and aggression (death) as in the boys’ play but it is wrapped up in intrigues and complications - and the danger of being banned, excluded and expelled from the community (the girls’ circle or group).

Boys have an outlet for their aggression - they play outwardly, like an explosion. Girls internalise it - an implosion - they often do not visibly play it out.

The prior conditions for avoiding misunderstanding the aggressive element in play is to make a clear distinction between real aggression (death, war, violence, attack, vandalism, fear) and aggressive play where the aggressive forms of expression mentioned are definitely not carried out consistently.

In boys’ play in particular there is coincidence between rough-and-tumble and aggressive play, partly also functional play. Their games are noisy and often very violent and chaotic. In girls’ play there is a coincidence between conversation play and dramatic play, partly also functional play.

In their play, boys use weapons and the instruments of war. The children introduce motifs and stories from war films and action films. The roles of hero and villain are most frequently distributed and exchanged between participants in the game. Aggression play is often also arranged in advance. In the girls’ games, aggression is wrapped up in intrigues and complications with experiments and scenes concerned with limiting or expelling from the group.

The border between aggressive play and aggression is extremely rarely crossed. Transgression is accidental or due to a misunderstanding of the rules and agreements. It seems that transgressions occur more often in girls’ play than in boys’.

Since the aim of aggressive play is not to end in a few moments of real aggression, all participants are very aware of the slightest tendencies or hints of it. Turning aggressive play into real aggression is regarded even by small children of 4-5 years as breaking the rules and poor play morality.


Wandering play

Where the child wanders around in the midst of other children’s activities and play.

The child plays the role of observer and his aim is to make contact with the other child/other children or to be allowed to participate, to become an active player in the game. Depending on the character of the game or the extent of the activity, an approach can be undertaken in several different ways.

The approach from a distance is, for example, when boys want to take part in girls’ play and they try to find the right moment to ask for permission to join in. The best situation would be if the girls themselves asked the boys to participate. This is possibly utopia, so light-hearted teasing, shoving or even direct sabotage of the game may, ultimately, be the only way to make an approach - even though it is negative in character.

Approaching a favourite in an attempt to become best friends or a member of a select group can be a form of play. For example, the one child could try to draw the same picture, say something “correct” about the other child’s drawing, loan out crayons or maybe give his own drawing to the other child.

The mute dialogue can be a form of wandering play. A ball is thrown to the stranger or to the child who is wandering. The ball is a wordless question: “Shall we play together?”. The recipient replies by throwing the ball gently and accurately back and accepts the approach with the wordless answer, “Yes, let’s play together”. Then, the game is open for play, community and speech.


Transition play

During play, the child goes from one activity to another or prepares an activity, takes it out or tidies it away.

Children go from one game or situation to another which often has no connection with the previous one. The space and time between the two games is often turned into play.

A lot of things can happen at kindergarten when children decide to stop one form of play and go out to play instead. The transition gives rise to play situations or to games e.g. putting on jackets and boots.

Materials and toys can be used in many different ways which they were not intended for. Small girls find interesting leaves and the game is to collect leaves. And then what? The transition to the next game is to prepare it - to discuss what they will do next with the leaves.

The two boys are observed. They seem to want to play with two girls on a swing. For the boys, the transition to the new common game is sabotage or breaking off the girls’ play with the swing. The transition to another game is, however, poss ibly not something everyone is interest in.


Unoccupied play

The child displays play behaviour which lacks a target or focus.

In the middle of a game or play process, a child will often lose concentration because he suddenly focuses his attention on something else. The child lets go of his participation in the game or whatever it was he was doing and for a shorter or longer period of time, withdraws from the game and is occupied with something completely different.

Almost everything children undertake or participate in is turned into a form of play. This is true regardless of whether his undertaking is a trip into town or something which is more clearly play. Children’s curiosity can lead to spontaneous fascination with something which distracts their attention from whatever it was they were involved in with other children or their parents.

Children and adults alike experience the situation where they concentrate on a game, e.g. cutting out and sticking. Instead of continuing to cut out and stick, the person-at-play suddenly begins to draw doodles and think of something completely different. Concentration evaporates and the person’s thoughts whisk him off into quite another world.

A child can tumble about without really knowing why. He doesn’t know what he wants or can be bothered to do. The heavy functionalism which is part of studies of children’s play and play with toys is, in one sense, paradoxical because we often observe children’s play as being incredibly light-hearted, from time to time irresponsible/dangerous - or just plain trivial. One is hard pressed to find literature describing children’s play with toys as exclusively non-functional - i.e. literature which attributes children’s play an exclusively non-transactional and expressionistic function.



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