Session 16/19

Page 4/6 Different kinds of play

Different kinds of play

In research, children’s play is divided into planned play and spontaneous play (in research this is referred to as structured play and unstructured play). Planned play being the sort of play that is organized by an adult and happens in a fixed time and setting, and with certain rules. For example, the rules of playing football. Spontaneous play is the play that happens freely and spontaneously between children. The play is not planned and moves in its own pace and originates from children’s imagination and fantasy. For example, they make up stories about heroes, or things they have experienced.

Both planned and spontaneous play is important for children’s development and it is important for caregivers to encourage both. There is no such thing as too much play, because play is how children learn.


Planned play is an organised form of play and takes place at a fixed time and space. Often, adults decide the rules and settings. Planned play is in many ways beneficial for children’s development, as it supports their development of core life skills.
Planned play is a good especially for toddlers and pre-school children. It is a way to introduce children to new activities. Through planned play you can teach toddlers to sort toys by shape or colour, and you can support the intellectual development of older children by introducing and playing card or board games.

Examples of planned play might be

  • Storytelling for a child or a group of children
  • Board or card games
  • Sports like basketball, football etc.
  • Dance, music or drama classes

However, even as a part of planned play children need to be given the time to explore themselves. If you give your toddler a set of cups that can nestle inside each other, give him/her time to try out the stacking combinations. Planned play can also be combined with an everyday-task such as folding laundry. Have the child sort the laundry by colour, or match sock pairs. You can also support the physical development of children by asking the child to only bunny hop when moving through the house, or have them play freeze dance while you are cooking.


Spontaneous play is different from planned play. It is the type of play that happens, depending on the child’s interest at the time. Free play cannot be planned and is determined by the child’s imagination.

Through spontaneous play children learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, to practice decision-making. In plays without adults children are free to develop creativity, leadership and group skills – without having to follow adult rules and concerns.

Examples of spontaneous play might be

  • Made up games like building houses with boxes, bricks, blankets
  • Dressing up using different clothes, blankets
  • Playing make-believe by performing different roles, both adult and child roles
  • Creative play like artistic or musical games
  • Different kinds of outdoor play like exploring play spaces and engaging with water, sand, mud, plants etc.

Especially outdoor play is beneficial for children’s development as they can learn a lot about the environment and get the opportunity to use their whole body and develop motor skills.

Even though spontaneous play happens on the terms of the child – caregivers can still be a part of the play. Sometimes children will need to be pointed in the right direction, towards the toys in the box or the closet for dress-ups. Sometimes they need a little encouragement to engage fully in the unstructured play: “How about playing dress-up?” “What do you want to be today?” “What could this toy be used for?”


As responsible adults, we promote good play behaviour. There are certain plays that we encourage and other plays that we discourage. 

Play in which positive values are demonstrated, for instance negotiation and cooperation, is often encouraged by adults. But play, which is considered negative and/or causes anxiety amongst the adults is not valued. This can be play that seems challenging, aggressive, or has no purpose. Like playing in the mud, fighting, playing conflict or death.

When we discourage certain ways of play, it is important to focus on the way we do it. We should be calm and use gentle words and be aware of our body language as well as how we look at the children etc.

If children have experienced terrible events or trauma like domestic violence, they will often repeat in play what happened, as part of their healing process. Here you can take the opportunity to talk with them about what happened, guide them, and turn their experience into a more positive story. Without your adult help for this, they may keep playing in violent ways and just repeat endlessly what they saw.

Example: Immacullee is five years old. She is very dominating and unforgiving towards other girls, and often angry with her caregivers, especially she is afraid of men. She tries to take control of all situations. Years ago, she saw her mother be attacked by burglars at night. Her foster mother decides to invite her to make a theatre play with small dolls they make up. Here they make a story, and play the situation of the burglary many times. While they play, the foster mother often talks about how Immacullee felt and what her mother felt when it happened. They make up a story where the mother and child are helped by neighbours, and manage to scare away the burglars. Gradually, Immacullee has a less and less frightening memory of the situation, and she becomes much calmer and more composed in her relations with others.

The value of play comes from children experiencing many different kinds of play over a long period of time. So why do we encourage some sorts of play more than others? Can children gain from plays that adults perceive as disruptive play?


Reflection on perceptions of play behaviour

  • How do we as adults react to our children’s play?
  • Are there types of play that we encourage and other types that we discourage?
  • How do the children react and feel when we stop their play?
  • Why do we value some types of play more than others?
  • What could we do to make more play opportunities available to our children?

The children will have an entirely different perspective on why play is important. Ask them why they like playing and how they feel when their play is stopped by adults.