What Children's Play Habits Mean

By Susan Revermann
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You may not readily connect with children’s need to wrestle with their friends or tell fanciful tales, but they have their reasons for wanting to play that way. Children at different stages in their development will demonstrate various play habits. Each type of play has its own function, purpose and meaning.

Independent, Solitary Play

Young toddlers around 1 or 2 will often be found participating in independent or solitary play. At this stage, the little ones are perfectly content playing by themselves. This way they learn how toys work and function all on their own. They get to explore and experiment during this time. This type of play is a normal part of development at this age, so don’t expect them to play with others all of the time.

Parallel Play

You may notice times where young children are playing alongside one of their friends, but not actually playing directly with them -- this is called parallel play. This type of play is common among 2- to 3-year-olds. They are learning basic play concepts during this time, like how to take turns with toys and share common space. They are still socializing with their buddies when they play like this, even if it doesn’t look like it.

Associative Play

When children are about 3 or 4 years old, they may play with a group of kids while still playing by themselves. For instance, if a group of children are playing with building blocks but everyone builds their own tower, it is considered associative play. During this time, the children will be sharpening their language skills and problem-solving techniques, and learning how to share and cooperate with others. This is the transition from parallel play to social, competitive play.

Competitive Play

As children near 5 years of age, they will start being a bit more competitive. Be prepared for board games, card games and other competitive games where there are rules and only one winner. Although winning the game can boost their self-esteem, they will have to learn how to lose graciously, too. Games are appealing to children, as there is a cognitive element as well as opportunities to interact with others.

Physical Play

Preschool-aged children can often be found participating in physical play. Children learn through exploring different types and combinations of movements during physical play. Although you may want to break up every rough and tumble episode, keep in mind that humans and animals both participate in this normal part of development. This type of play helps foster social awareness, cooperation, fairness and altruism, according to The National Institute for Play. If the children start to hit or harm each other, however, it is time to break it up.

Dramatic Play

Begining in the toddler and preschool years, children love to participate in various types of dramatic play. This type of play provides opportunities for the children to imagine, create and experience various social roles. Dress-up clothes, puppets, dolls, stuffed toys, action figures and plastic tools can all be used to pretend and role-play.

Narrative Play

Many children love to participate in narrative play or storytelling. This type of play can be quite enjoyable and requires the children to use their language skills and imagination to tell a story to the audience. Children’s tendency to tell tall tales can be attributed to this type of play and it is very normal.