The different types of play in early years

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Playtime is about more than just fun and games!

It is actually a crucial aspect of a child’s growth and development, providing opportunities for children to learn, grow, and develop a range of skills. From building strong motor skills through physical play, to nurturing creativity and emotional intelligence through imaginative play, every moment of play is an opportunity for your child to explore, grow and thrive.

So let’s dive in and discover the different types of play in early childhood and why each one is essential for learning and development.

Why play is important in early childhood

Play is essential for childhood development for a wide range of reasons, including:

  • Cognitive Development: Play helps children develop their thinking and problem-solving skills, and improves their memory and attention.
  • Emotional Development: Play provides opportunities for children to express their emotions, build self-esteem, and develop positive relationships with others.
  • Physical Development: Play encourages physical activity and the development of fine and gross motor skills.
  • Social Development: Play helps children learn social skills such as cooperation, sharing, and communication.
  • Creativity and Imagination: Play allows children to explore their creativity, imagination, and curiosity.


The 5 different types of play

Play can take on many different forms, each serving a unique purpose in a child’s development. It’s important to note that the different types of play are not mutually exclusive and often overlap with each other.

Here are 5 examples of different kinds of play children engage in.

Free play

Free play is a type of play that is self-directed and not limited by specific rules or goals. It is unstructured and provides children with the chance to let their imaginations run wild.

Why it’s important

Free play is an important aspect of childhood as it provides children with the opportunity to express themselves creatively, build their problem-solving skills, and learn how to regulate their emotions and behaviour. As this type of play is typically unguided by adults, it can also foster a sense of independence and confidence in children. 


  • Playing with toys and dolls, such as creating imaginative scenarios and scenes.
  • Pretend play, where children act out different roles and scenarios, such as being a doctor, chef, or superhero.
  • Outdoor play, such as playing in a sandbox, climbing trees, or playing with friends.
  • Creative play, including drawing, painting, or building with blocks.
  • Solitary play, where children play alone and engage in activities that they choose.
  • Improvisational play, where children make up games and rules on the spot.


Guided play

Guided play is structured and led by an adult or teacher. Unlike free play, this different type of play in childcare involves setting rules, goals, and objectives for children to follow, and provides a more structured environment for play. 

Why it’s important

Guided play can help children learn new skills, develop specific abilities, and practise their social skills.


  • Structured sports activities, where an adult provides instructions and supervises the game.
  • Educational games, such as memory games, puzzles, or matching games.
  • Art and craft activities, where an adult provides materials and guidance for children to create something specific.
  • Music and dance activities, where an adult provides instructions and guidance for children to follow along.


Constructive play

Constructive play is a type of play that involves building or constructing objects, structures, or creations using various materials. This type of play can be done independently or with others and can involve the use of building blocks, Legos, building sets, or any other materials that allow children to create something tangible.

Why it’s important

This type of play is important for a child’s development as it helps to develop fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and problem-solving abilities. It also allows children to engage their imagination and creativity, and explore different ways to construct and build different objects and structures.


  • Building with blocks, including creating towers, bridges, or structures.
  • Constructing with building sets, such as Legos.
  • Playing with construction toys, such as hammering and nailing toys or building sets with wheels and moving parts.
  • Making things with play doh or modelling clay.
  • Building structures with materials found in nature like sticks, stones, or leaves.


Physical play

As suggested by its name, this kind of play involves physical movement and activity. It can include a wide range of activities, from rough-and-tumble play to organised sports, and is an important aspect of a child’s development.

Why it’s important

Physical play helps children develop gross motor skills, balance, coordination, and physical strength, as well as promoting healthy exercise habits. It also provides children with an outlet for energy and emotions, and can even help regulate their behaviour and mood.


  • Running, jumping, and hopping.
    • Climbing on play structures, trees, or rocks.
  • Playing with balls.
  • Participating in organised sports, such as soccer, basketball, or tee-ball.
  • Playing tag, hide and seek or other chasing games.
  • Engaging in physical activities like dance or gymnastics.


Self-directed play

Self-directed play is a type of play where children take the reins, as they can independently choose what they want to play, how they want to play it, and with whom they want to play. 

Why it’s important

This type of play lets kids choose their own adventures, explore their interests, and develop key skills like decision-making, problem-solving, and socialising with others. It’s the perfect chance for children to truly express themselves while also having fun.



  • Playing with toys including dolls, action figures, or building sets.
  • Engaging in imaginative play, such as role-playing or dress-up.
  • Drawing, colouring, or painting.
  • Reading books, comics, or graphic novels.
  • Engaging in creative arts and crafts, such as making jewellery or collages.
  • Participating in solitary activities, such as puzzles or board games.
  • Exploring the natural world.

Additional resources

Whether it’s playing with toys and dolls, pretending, being creative, or simply enjoying some time alone, play is a vital part of childhood that should be cherished and encouraged.

Curious about how play can impact a child’s growth and development? Dive into the world of play theories to learn more about how play actively shapes cognitive development in early childhood.