How We Play

Many Types of Play

This page describes the most common types of play in terms of their manifestation and importance to young children, but each type of play is practiced at all ages. We focus here on children because a broad exposure to play is critical for their optimal development. Adult play is often ‘lost’ or suppressed but can be re-ignited by integrating many of these types of play into one’s inherent “play personality.”

A mother and baby gazing joyfully at each other.

Attunement Play

Beginning, usually at three or four months of age, when parent and infant gaze into each other’s eyes and engage in smiling, cooing, sing-song interchanges, both the child’s and parent’s brains are lighting up. They are experiencing a joyful union; they are in a play-state. This is a universal experience across all cultures. Through repeated attuned experiences like this, the child’s brain creates the neural pathways that will be the foundation for trust and the grounding base for  all future playfulness. More on Attunement Play

Body and Movement Play

Infants begin playing with their bodies very early. Squirming and arm moving begins in the womb; after birth, babies rock their bodies regularly until they develop the muscle control and strength to crawl, then work their way up to walking then running. The learning path they take as they grow from squirming to running is driven by an intrinsic motivation to explore, learn, and develop new skills.

Throughout our lives, movement activates areas of the brain connected to learning, innovation, adaptability, and resilience. If you are having a hard time getting something done or getting into a play state, move: go for a walk or fold the laundry. As Bob Fagen says, “Movement fills an empty heart.”

One study revealed that periods of greatest play movement are also the times of most rapid growth of the cerebellum; if activity is inhibited during these periods, the growth of nerve cells in the cerebellum is greatly reduced. More on Movement Play

A young girl playing on a slide.
A preschool boy playing with buildnig blocks

Object Play

Curiosity about “objects” is a pervasive, innately fun type of play. Spoons, teething rings, or foods are early objects of play. As children develop skills in manipulating objects (such as banging on pans or skipping rocks), the circuits in the brain become richer. There is pleasure in the physical and movement aspects of object play — in putting together a puzzle, kicking a ball, or tossing a paper wad into a wastebasket. And as JPL managers discovered, early object play with the hands creates a brain that is better able to identify and solve system problems.

Imaginative Play

The earliest evidence of imaginative play comes at about the age of two, in the form of fragmentary stories. Play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith describes these fragments as partial narratives: They are not a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end. They may be just the beginning or middle. In time, children develop the ability to create a complete narrative. This progression occurs in children worldwide, and is an integral aspect of their play. Children are gleeful as they tell their stories. 

In addition to the spoken stories, there are imaginative play adventures which contain both real and make-believe elements. The power of human imagination to create and innovate has built our modern world, and being playfully imaginative continues to nourish the spirit.

A girl in a red mask and cape, pretending to be a superhero.
Two preschoolers playing together

Social Play

From the simplest game of peek-a-boo to the most formal dinner party, social play is a prominent type of human play behavior. Humans are social animals, and play is the path to social competence. 

Kids begin social play first through “parallel” play. Two kids sit next to each other, both playing with crayons or blocks, aware of each other’s presence but not interacting directly or emotionally with each other. From parallel play, children start reaching out to join the play of other children nearby. Later, mutual play occurs: the basic state of friendship that operates throughout our lives. Social play lubricates social interactions and builds trust, which becomes the basis for developing relationships.

Rough and Tumble Play

Rough-and-tumble play is generally defined as friendly fighting or play fighting, and extends to any active play that includes shouting or body contact among children. 

Joe Frost points out that “many adults, including teachers, do not distinguish between play fighting (R&T) and real aggression, and they prohibit wrestling, shouting, and make-believe aggression” believing that it is detrimental. However, extensive research on rough-and-tumble play has consistently shown that it is a necessary and important foundation for developing cooperative socialization, a sense of fairness, and altruism.

NIFP founder Dr. Stuart Brown and other researchers have shown that depriving youngsters of rough-and-tumble play hampers their ability to learn the normal give-and-take necessary for social mastery, and has been linked to poor control of violent impulses in later life. 

Children know the difference between play fighting and real aggression. Rough-and-tumble play occurs with a smile between friends who stay friends. More on Rough and Tumble play.

Toddler boys roughhousing; one boy has the other pinned to the grass and both are laughing.
A family helping a child blow out a birthday candle

Celebratory and Ritual Play

​​Children don’t need formal events to practice celebratory or ritual play; they do so naturally as part of their social play. Ritual play is a more adult-oriented type of play. For children, celebratory or ritual play may involve a birthday celebration, a holiday dinner, or a religious observance. Children don’t initiate these events, but the ritual social experiences create a reservoir of good memories and help them develop a taste for ritual play as adults.

Serious adult rituals often are accompanied by celebratory play, like the reception following a wedding ceremony.

Storytelling and Narrative Play

Storytelling occupies a central place in early development and learning about the world, oneself, and one’s place in it. Our minds continually make up stories about why things are the way they are, and those stories form our understanding of the world. Stories are a way of putting disparate pieces of information into a unified context. As we grow, narrative stories tell us something about how things are and how things should be, whether we are listening to Big Bird’s take on life or Garrison Keillor’s tales of Lake Wobegon.

Stories remain central to human understanding well after childhood. When people make judgments about right and wrong, even in politics or the jury box, they often do so as a result of a story they constructed about events that have happened. Storytelling can produce a sense of timelessness and pleasure, and an altered state of vicarious involvement—states of play.

Young girl telling herself stories.