top of page

No Wrong Way to Play

In today's world, it can be hard to remember the value of play. Our education system pushes academic readiness as early as preschool, with focus on reading, math, and other curriculum-based facts. As adults, we often forget the value of play as we focus on productivity in the workplace and survival on the home front.

As Brené Brown says, "it takes courage to say yes to rest and play, in a culture where exhaustion is a seen as status symbol."

For children, play is much more than 'just fun.' It is, instead, fundamental to their development. It is how children learn and explore their environment, how they engage with others, and how they grow in confidence and skill.

Through play, children develop...

  • Imaginative thinking

  • Abstract thinking

  • Problem solving

  • Life skills

  • Leadership skills

  • Communication skills

  • Social skills

  • Self-advocacy

  • Theory of Mind (e.g., taking another's perspective)

  • And MORE!

So let's take a look at the development of play from infancy to adolescence and explore how you can encourage play with your children today.

Types of Play

Functional Play

Functional play is defined as play with toys or objects in a way that you would expect based on the object's intended function (e.g., rolling a ball, driving a car). This type of play is often the first type of play to emerge, beginning in infancy and continuing on into toddlerhood. It is often a combination of sensory and motor play, meaning that the play stimulates your child's senses (e.g., touch, smell, taste, movement, balance, sight, hearing) and develops your child's fine motor and gross motor skills (e.g., finger isolation, pincer grasp, body coordination, etc).

Although some examples are quite straightforward (e.g., rolling a ball, stacking a block), other examples of functional play are a bit surprising. For example, babies mouthing objects and toddler climbing furniture are both examples of functional play too!

Recommended Toys to Encourage Functional Play:

  • Stacking: Blocks, Cups

  • Rolling: Balls, Toy Cars

  • Sensory Exploration: Teethers, Rattles, Dimpl popping toy,

  • Riding: Toddler Bike, Scooter

Symbolic Play

Symbolic play is typically the next big stage of play, when your child starts to use objects to represent (or symbolize) other objects. It can be divided into two different categories: constructional play and dramatic (or pretend) play.

Constructional Play

This stage typically begins around 2 years of age when children manipulate, shape, or build something in their play. Once again, this is often a combination of sensory and motor play, as your child is required to touch, balance, push, pull, etc as they play.

Recommendations to Encourage Constructional Play:

  • Building a tower or castle (blocks, magnatiles, kinetic sand)

  • Creating with playdough

  • Assembling a blanket fort

  • Digging dams and rivers in mud

  • Woodworking toys

Dramatic Play

Dramatic play, or pretend play, begins around 3 years of age although you may see some early symbolic play actions in play as early as 18-24 months. The earliest actions are simple -- pretending to drink from a cup or brushing a doll's hair but as your child grows older, these play schemas will become longer and more complex. Your child will create or recreate a play scenario (e.g., cooking dinner, going to the doctor, playing house). They will begin to take on a role and later assign roles to others as they begin to engage in cooperative play!

This type of play is fun to watch, as you can see your child's personality and creativity blossom. But it can also be a challenge, as your demanding, controlling toddler tells you every single way you are "doing it wrong mama."

Recommendations to Encourage Dramatic Play:

  • Pretend objects are something else (e.g., pretend a shoe is a phone)

  • Make favorite foods in a pretend kitchen

  • Play restaurant and order food

  • Play with baby dolls (e.g., bathe them, feed them, rock them to sleep)

Game Play

More structured game play may begin as early as 3 years old. These early games have simple rules for gameplay and winning, focusing on basic turn-taking (e.g, Hoot Owl Hoot) and cooperation (e.g., Race to the Treasure).

As children get older, board games and card games become more complex, with more rules and the need for higher level language and thought processes. In addition, structured sports (e.g., soccer, basketball, etc) are a form of game play that require knowledge of complex rules, cooperation with teammates, and physical skills.

When children of any age play games with rules, they use logic and social skills in their interactions. They also build socioemotional skills as they navigate feelings around winning and losing, performance pressure, and supporting teammates.

Recommendations for Game Play:


  • Turn-Taking Games (Honey Bee Tree, Hoot Owl Hoot, Sneaky Snacky Squirrel)

  • Cooperative Games (Race to the Treasure, Mermaid Island)

  • Board games (Candyland, Chutes and Ladders)

School-Aged and Beyond

  • Board Games (Checkers, Settlers of Catan, Chess)

  • Card games (Go Fish, UNO, Sleeping Queens, Rat-a-tat Cat, Anomia)

Social Stages of Play

We also should remember that children don't start playing with others right away. They develop social play over time.

Play usually progresses from one stage to the next, but the rate of development and preference for one style of play over another can look very different from child to child.

Play Differences

Although we have spent most of this post discussing typical play development and stages, play may look different for your child depending on their cultural background or neurodiversity.

It is important to remember that play should NOT be NORMALIZED.

What does that mean? It means we shouldn't expect children to play a certain way, or correct them on how to play with any particular toy or object.

Play can be used as a context or a tool for supporting language development, but there is no wrong way to play.

Stay tuned for more information about play and neurodiversity in our upcoming blog post this summer!

The Bottom Line

Kids learn through play.

Play can be categorized into types and sequenced into stages of development -- and used as a context for teaching -- but there really is no wrong way to do it.

What You Can Do --

As a parent or caregiver, you can affirm your child's interests and engage with them during play. You may even be surprised what their preferences are!

Here are some of our top tips for how to play with your child:

  • Observe how your child prefers to play with toys

  • Imitate what your child does during play, and try to go along with their plan.

  • Model new ways to play without expectation or requirement

  • If your child doesn't engage with you during play, play near them (parallel play)

  • Comment on what your child does during play; map words onto play

  • Give your child the courage to play and be creative as a rest from work


Kostelnik, M., Soderman, A. and Phipps Whiren, A. (2018)

Mildred Parten's Six Stages of Play

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page