Let’s Play!

We’re going to spend some time talking about the different ways that children play. You’ve probably noticed that all children like to play differently. I’ve even heard my own parents talk about how different my play was in comparison to my brother’s. My parents often reminisce about how content I was sitting on the floor tending to my baby dolls or flipping through my storybooks. However, when they describe my brother, they laugh about how quickly he bounced and hopped through our home often pretending he had all kinds of super powers. Even though I enjoyed quiet activities I could explore with my hands, my brother thrived on noise and action. You might be wondering how two children who grew up in the same home could prefer completely opposite forms of play. If you are pondering this thought, you’re not the first one. In fact, researchers have even been studying the question of why children enjoy different types of play.

Before we jump into exploring why some children might choose to play differently, I thought we could look at some factors that affect play. As we watch a toddler intensely focus on a block tower they are creating or walk past a group of school-aged kids enjoying a game of kickball, we often do not think about all the different things that have an impact on children’s play. The research tells us that how children choose to play is affected by many different factors such as a child’s culture, motor development, cognitive skills, etc. (Miller & Kuhaneck, 2008; Smith, 2013). For example, children who live in rural areas are more likely than their urban counterparts to participate in unstructured play where they allow their curiosity to guide them in exploring in their OWN WAY without any rules or guidelines (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2018; Smith, 2013; Zero To Three, 2015).

Age can also affect a child’s play (Miller & Kuhaneck, 2008). As children grow older and develop new motor and cognitive skills, they can incorporate these new concepts and ideas into their play. For instance, you might see a toddler copying their parent’s actions as they explore a toy instrument together. This is because when children reach around one year of age, they begin using their growing memory and physical skills to imitate others (Parlakian & Lerner, 2016). The skills that children use to practice copying what others do is something that does not begin appearing until around the second year of life, which explains why newborns can’t imitate their parents’ actions during play. As we talk about all the different factors that can affect a child’s play, you might already be beginning to answer the question we brought up earlier, which is, “Why do children play differently?” Though a child’s play is impacted by outside influences like their culture as well as their own abilities, there is also another piece to this puzzle.

Just like adults have preferences for the hobbies we enjoy, children also have preferences for different types of play. (Case-Smith & Kuhaneck; Parlakian & MacLaughlin, 2018). Every child is unique and while some may love to explore with lots of action, others may enjoy playing in calm and quiet environments (Parlakian & MacLaughlin, 2018; Zero To Three, 2016). The experts tell us that those children who enjoy a more relaxed play environment will probably enjoy learning about the world by doing things like watching, listening and exploring with their hands. These children might have the most fun when parents do things like read books with them, play dress up or explore different puzzles. However, the children who enjoy lots of action may prefer play that allows them to move in LOTS of different ways. They’ll probably enjoy open spaces where they are free to explore the world by touching and grabbing anything they can reach. (Zero To Three, n.d.).

You’re probably starting to realize which type of play I enjoyed as a child. Even though my brother and I grew up together, I preferred exploring with my hands, while my brother enjoyed learning about the world by constantly being on the move. It is important to note that there is no correct way for a child to play. It is also important to mention that the child who chooses to explore by running as fast they can, reaching for every object that catches their eye, is not “bad” or “misbehaving.” Children who enjoy lots of action in their play are simply kiddos who love to move. (Zero to Three, n.d.).

No matter what kind of play preferences a child has, there are things that parents can do to support them. If a child enjoys a calm and quiet play environment, parents can focus on respecting HOW the child likes to explore. They can do this by providing them with lots of opportunities to play with items that might interest them such as books or puzzles. Parents can also support these children by trying to add some physical activity into their quiet play routines. For example, parents might play music during cleanup time to encourage their little one to dance and move as they pick up their toys together (Zero To Three, n.d.).

To support children who love lots of action during play, parents can focus on safety. These children love to be on the move grabbing whatever they can reach, so it is EXTRA important to childproof. This will ensure parents that their energetic children can explore items that are safe for them. Parents can also support these children by allowing them to move during activities that are usually more calm and relaxed. For example, parents might encourage their active toddler to act out a storybook as they read together (Zero To Three, n.d.).

If you find yourself reading this and thinking of a child who does not fall into either of these play preference categories, this is normal. The majority of children enjoy both active exploration and calm, quiet play. This means a lot of children may spend their day running and jumping, while also exploring how to put a puzzle together (Zero To Three, 2010). If you are not quite sure if a child likes lots of action or a relaxed play environment, you can be sure they are having fun by simply following their lead. Child development specialists tell us that as long as parents support their children with what seems to interest them, they will help them learn during play. (Zero To Three, 2010). This means you can feel free to join the kiddo who is sprinting through the grass chasing the ball they are kicking around, or you can also take a break and enjoy coloring with the toddler who is just learning about crayons. As long as children are safe, you can support them by following THEIR LEAD and allowing them to decide which type of play is fun (Parlakian & MacLaughlin, 2018).

If you use the Growing Great Kids Curriculum, remember, you can pick from a variety of subsections to support parents with better understanding play. Play and Stimulation modules are located in three of the Growing Great Kids’ manuals ranging from Birth-36 months of age. I thank you for stopping by to check out our blog for this month. I hope that you’ll drop by next month to hear about our special topic for April. In the meantime, let children LEAD play!


American Academy of Pediatrics. (2018, August 20). The power of play – How fun and games help

children thrive. Retrieved from https://www.healthychildren.org/english/ages-stages/toddler/


Case-Smith, J., & Kuhaneck, H. (2008). Play preferences of typically developing children and children

with developmental delays between ages 3 and 7 years. OTJR: Occupation, Participation &

Health28(1), 19-29. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/220301651?


Kuhaneck, H. & Miller, E. (2008). Children’s perception of play experiences and play preferences: A

qualitative study. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 62, 407-415. Retrieved from


Parlakian, R., & Lerner, C. [Zero To Three]. (2016, February 16). Power of play: Building skills and

having fun.  [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/158-power-of-


Parlakian, R., & MacLaughlin, S. S. (2018, January 12). Let’s play: How your child learns and grows

through play from birth to three. Retrieved from https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/2144-


Smith, P. K. (2013 June). Play synthesis. Retrieved from http://www.childencyclopedia.com/


Zero To Three. (n.d.). Activity level. Retrieved from https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/350-


Zero To Three. (2016, April 19). Learning through play: 12 to 24 months. Retrieved from


Zero To Three. (2010, February 22). Parenting strategies for an active child. Retrieved from


Zero To Three. (2015, February 26). Stages of play from 12-24 months: Young toddlers are problem

solvers. Retrieved from https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/314-stages-of-play-from-12-24-


Zero To Three. (2010, February 20). Tips on nurturing your child’s curiosity. Retrieved from


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