Updated: January 28, 2024
From nature play to block play, risk-taking to art, discover the stages, benefits, and activities that shape children’s development. This guide breaks down the essentials for parents, educators, and caregivers. Explore all types of play in the early childhood years.
Stages of Play
Child development theory has two well-known “stages of play” frameworks. This guide explores Parten’s 6 Stages of Play and Piaget’s 4 Types of Play.
Parten’s 6 Stages of Play
After observing children for her dissertation, Parten outlined six stages of play children typically move through.
- Unoccupied Play (Birth to 3 Months): Babies explore using their senses, playing alone without apparent objectives.
- Solitary Play (3 Months to 2 1/2 Years): Children play alone, exploring objects and understanding their environment.
- Spectator Play (2 1/2 to 3 1/2 Years): Children watch other children play nearby, learning through observation.
- Parallel Play (3 1/2 to 4 Years): Two children play side-by-side with similar materials, engaging in short conversations or imitating each other.
- Associative Play (4 to 4 1/2 Years): Children interact more during play but still focus on their own goals and interests.
- Cooperative Play (4 1/2 Years and Up): Play becomes complex and interactive, building friendships, and practicing collaboration.
Piaget’s 4 Stages of Play
As part of his Stages of Cognitive Development theory, Piaget shares four types of play that children develop, one at a time.
- Functional Play: Very young children explore objects using their senses.
- Constructive Play: Children use objects with purpose, like drawing or building with blocks.
- Symbolic Play: Children incorporate objects into imaginative, pretend play.
- Games with Rules: Children understand and follow rules in play.
Stages of Play: Compare Parten & Piaget to Unlock Kids’ Learning
Nature Play Definition
Nature play involves engaging in play and exploring natural outdoor environments such as a park, backyard, forest, field, or beach. It encompasses a range of activities, from hiking and camping to simple outdoor explorations.
Benefits of Nature Play
Nature play improves physical health, reduces stress, instills curiosity, stimulates the senses, and increases attention spans.
Playing in nature also instills the value of conservation and environmental stewardship.
Nature Play Activities
- For Babies: Sensory nature walks, tummy time in the grass, and nature sensory bottles.
- For Toddlers: Leaf rubbings, mud kitchens, and nature scavenger hunts.
- For Preschool & Kindergarten: Building bug houses, outdoor science experiments, and nature-inspired art.
Discover more nature play activities, along with safety tips in the nature play post.
What is Nature Play? Learn from an Early Childhood Expert
Block Play Definition
Block play is an imaginative, open-ended learning activity where children use blocks to construct and investigate.
Stages of Block Play
- Prebuilding Exploration: Babies and toddlers explore sensory qualities, like size and texture, through touching, mouthing, piling, and banging blocks.
- Stacks & Rows: Toddlers create stacks and rows, exploring cause and effect, balancing, and patterns.
- Bridges: Preschoolers engineer bridges or tunnels by balancing a single block on two supports.
- Enclosures: Preschoolers expand boundaries by creating enclosures, starting with a box and extending into various shapes.
- Complex Structures: Children combine design elements, using rows, stacks, arches, enclosures, and incorporating toys or loose parts.
- Patterns & Symmetry: Preschoolers and Kindergarteners refine designs, paying attention to shapes, colors, and patterns, adding symmetry and balance.
- Block Structures for Pretend Play: School-aged children use blocks symbolically in cooperative play involving planning, negotiation, and rules.
Explore and download the Stages of Block Play Chart.
Types of Blocks
Blocks and sets for building come in different kinds, such as wooden unit blocks, magnetic blocks, plastic interlocking blocks, and more. Well-known brands like Mega Bloks, Lego, Magna-Tiles, Lincoln Logs, and Tinker Toys offer various choices. Depending on a child’s age, skills, and interests, many types of blocks are available to encourage creativity and learning.
Explore my recommendations on block sets by age.
Benefits of Block Play
Playing with blocks nurtures creativity, problem-solving, social interaction, physical abilities, language development, and cognitive skills. It supports fine and gross motor development, fostering holistic growth. Learn more about the 10 benefits of block play.
The Ultimate Introduction to Block Play in Early Childhood
Loose Parts Play
Loose Parts Definition
Loose parts are open-ended materials that children can investigate, experiment, and construct with various materials.
Examples of Loose Parts Materials
- Metallic treasures (bangle bracelets, jar lids, silver ribbons)
- Nature objects (leaves, pinecones, stones)
- Everyday recycled items (bottle caps, cardboard tubes, fabric scraps)
Explore lists, photos, and a free downloadable PDF of my favorite loose parts materials.
Benefits of Loose Parts Play
Loose parts play is beneficial for all stages of play development and learning domains, supporting:
- Gross & Fine Skills
- Social & Emotional Skills
- Language Skills
- Cognitive Skills
- STEM Learning
- Sensory Learning
Get more details about the benefits in my article The Magic of Loose Parts: FAQs for Teachers & Parents.
The Magic of Loose Parts: FAQs
Risk-Taking Play Definition
Risk-taking play, also known as dangerous or risky play, is a natural part of children’s play.
Examples of Risk-Taking Play
Risk-taking play is an activity where children test their physical abilities, resilience, persistence, and problem-solving, such as:
- Chase and tag games
- Moving fast on own or on riding toys
- Balancing on balance beams or low ledges
- Rough-and-tumble play
- Moving heavy objects
- Climbing & jumping
- Hanging & swinging
Benefits of Risk-Taking Play
Risk-taking play contributes to the holistic development of children, enhancing their physical, cognitive, and emotional skills.
Risk-taking play empowers children, instilling confidence, and equipping them to face life’s challenges. It helps kids understand their strengths and weaknesses, developing strategies to navigate obstacles.
Access a parent and teacher’s guide to risk-taking play, plus more activities in my article Brave Kids: The Ultimate Guide to Risk-Taking Play.
Brave Kids: Guide to Risk-Taking Play
Vestibular & Proprioceptive Play
Vestibular and Proprioceptive Play Definition
Vestibular and proprioceptive play stimulates sensory systems in the body.
The vestibular system helps us balance and stay aware of our movements and speed. Vestibular activities include:
- jumping on cushions
The proprioceptive system tells us our body’s position in space, along with how much force we need to complete tasks. Proprioceptive activities include:
- rough play
- catching and throwing
- play dough
Find dozens of vestibular and proprioceptive sensory-seeking play ideas.
Issues with vestibular and proprioceptive senses may look like clumsy movements, rough play, intense motions, or a near-constant need for sensory stimulation.
Vestibular & Proprioceptive Play: What to Know
Process Art Definition
Process art is an approach that values the creative journey over the end product. It allows children to explore materials and express themselves freely.
The benefits of process art include:
- Fostering creativity
- Encouraging experimentation
- Building self-esteem and confidence
Product Art Definition
Product art, like crafts, emphasizes the result, often guided by specific instructions. It focuses on creating a finished product and likely will limit creativity and personal expression.
Product art does have benefits, such as practicing following instructions, learning new techniques, and collaborating toward a common goal.
Balancing Process and Product Art
It is important to find a good balance between process and product art. Most children’s art time should be dedicated to process art, emphasizing exploration and self-expression.
Read my art post and explore a graphic chart for side-by-side comparisons.
Process Art vs. Product Art: The Must-Know Differences
Water Play Definition
Water play is a sensory activity where children explore, manipulate, and interact with water, fostering important developmental skills.
Feel like water play is too chaotic? Read my guide to manageable water play.
Water play nurtures holistic development, promoting physical and cognitive skills, sensory exploration, emotional regulation, and language development.
Surprising Benefits of Water Play
Container Play Definition
Container play is a type of play where babies and toddlers explore putting objects into containers and dumping them out.
Container play supports fine motor skills, cognitive abilities, language, and social-emotional well-being.
The Magic of Container Play
Sorting & Classifying
Sorting and classifying play is a form of early STEM learning. It can look like completing a shape sorter, matching counting bears, or stringing a pattern of beads.
Sorting is selecting or arranging items based on shared characteristics like size, color, or shape. Example: Putting all markers into the marker bin during clean-up.
Classifying is a more advanced form of sorting where children group objects based on multiple or more complex characteristics. Example: Choosing only the bugs from the animal toy bin.
Sorting and classifying activities nurture early literacy and math skills by building foundational knowledge of similarities and differences. This type of play also fosters cognitive development, language development, and artistic expression.
Children benefit the most from sorting and classifying activities that match their interests and developmental level, with support from adults’ modeling and prompting.
Sorting & Classifying: Make STEM Skills Fun
Heuristic Play Definition
Heuristic play is a type of open-ended play where babies and toddlers explore ordinary items, such as household objects and natural materials.
This type of play is guided by 5 principles and has a historical significance in the field of early childhood education.
Heuristic play supports development in all learning domains, offers sensory-rich experiences, and fosters a sense of belonging for babies and toddlers. Discover an in-depth look at 11 powerful benefits of heuristic play.