Using different types of play to support children’s learning, attention, development, and wellbeing.

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A backlash about different types of play (and play-based learning) is brewing in many parenting and teacher communities.

In one camp, we have those who view play-based learning as a specialist type of teaching.  In this world, play and play-based learning requires particular equipment, skills, or approaches. Here, ‘play’ is viewed as a productive activity in which learning is the primary goal and is also a visible outcome.

In the second camp, are those who argue that play is ‘natural’ and requires no input from adults. In this camp, play is all about the process and not the outcome. Sometimes – though not always – the ‘free-play’ community also view play as separate from ‘serious’ learning. Here, play is viewed as something which decreases in quality or authenticity as adult involvement increases.

Although these groups have different perspectives, each argument centres around assumptions (and ideals) about what children’s play ‘should’ look like. However, as teachers and homeschool parents know, play rarely fits ‘neatly’ into either one of these categories.

Understanding Play

Play is a powerful context for learning. Play requires children to negotiate social agreements and to self-regulate their own desires and attention. This, in turn, is how children derive the joy and reward of play (1, 2, 3). Even ‘academic’ literacy and mathematics learning emerge from different types of play, because they are fundamentally tools for navigating and constructing the social world.

Different types of play challenges

This might go some way to explaining why, in our real worlds, children’s play is filled with social dilemmas and contradictions. Anyone who has educated or raised more than one child will be familiar with some of the play dilemmas that arise in real life, often daily. Examples of different types of play challenges and barriers can include:

  • Play avoidance or anxiety.
  • Controlling or inflexibility in play.
  • Conflict and deep distress.
  • Not knowing ‘how’ to play.
  • Not wanting to play independently (or, conversely, not wanting to play with others).
  • Becoming ‘bored’ with play.
  • Play activity that seems to stall learning (like a ‘loop’), instead of supporting it.
  • Violence and other dysregulated play.
Not everything is play

Viewing play as something that comes ‘naturally’ to all children, in all circumstances does not provide the necessary insights we need to understand or respond to these play challenges. More specifically, the ‘play-is-natural’ perspective implies that these challenges are unimportant because they are viewed simply as part of the ‘natural’ play experience. In contrast, when we remember the defining features of play, it is obvious that most of these experiences are not conducive to play at all. And they are certainly not supportive of learning or wellbeing.

However, viewing play as something that needs to be managed or overseen by adults is equally problematic. For example, adult intervention in any number of these sorts of challenges, can remove the opportunity for the child to play and to learn within the play-based context.  

Therefore, while most of us recognise the importance of different types of play in general terms, we need more than a simplified understanding of what play is (and is not), for it to have relevance and applicability in our everyday teaching, parenting, and homeschooling.

Play motivations

One particularly helpful – but largely unknown – framework comes from some work by Sara-Lea Chazan, published back in 2002 (4). Chazan considered the idea that play was less about the content of the activity, but rather the features or characteristics of different types of play. One of the characteristics that Chazan thought important was the motivation or ‘drive’ that the child used to play. However, unlike other researchers, Chazan did not describe what types of play were ‘normal’ for different ages or stages of development. Rather, Chazan took a more holistic approach. Specifically, she observed that children seemed to have different motivations or ‘drives’ that directed their play. All in all, Chazan observed 13 different motivations or ‘drives’ in children’s play.

Play involves many motivations

Although Chazan put these motivations or categories in this particular order, she did not find that these motivations are ‘sequential’ in a traditional sense. Specifically, she did not suggest that children ‘move’ in a step-by-step fashion from one type of play to the next. Nor did she suggest that children engage in only one type of play. This is important to understand because it highlights that there is no value or need to ‘push’ children into the ‘next stage’ of play. There is, in fact, no ‘next stage’. Children may engage in many different ‘drives’ in a single play activity, and throughout childhood.

However, Chazan did observe that each of these motivations and impulses appeared to have a maturational quality. In other words, she observed that each ‘category’ of play increases in cognitive complexity by encompassing and expanding on skills mastered in previous play categories. It is this discovery that has enormous practical value for educators – whether parents in a homeschool setting, or teachers in a group setting. Specifically, Chazan’s play categories challenge us to look beyond children’s ‘interests’ or the content of play (such as ‘dinosaurs’ or ‘robots’) which can easily change from day-to-day. Instead, this framework asks us to more closely observe the preferred impulses and motivations that drive each child to play – both in the moment, and over time.

How to ‘use’ different types of play motivations to support learning

Different types of play. Image of a young child opening a treasure chest.

Understanding each child’s preferred impulses or play motivations involves spending time noticing where their attention is held and sustained while they are playing. More specifically, it involves noticing which specific play seems to increase or decrease children’s attention and stress behaviours. Noticing behaviours or play challenges such as incoherence, avoidance, anxiety, or loss of logic, suggests that the child’s cognitive processing needs are not being met by the play experience.

In these instances, we have the choice to either:

  • Join the child in the play, so as to support and scaffold the additional cognitive skills needed to engage in the play; or
  • To offer materials/ prompts that will allow them to engage in play that requires less cognitive complexity.
Adjusting the complexity of play

Using this approach highlights that ‘adult involvement’ in children’s play-based learning is not an all-or-nothing approach. By focussing on, and developing our knowledge about different types of play motivations, we can more easily individualise learning in a way that is motivating and supports children to extend their skills and play confidently (5).

There are many reasons why children may struggle to engage in play and learning. If this is something that you relate to, it can be helpful to start with a best ‘guess’ about the child’s play motivation. Then, offering some relevant materials, observe how settled or regulated they appear doing that activity. If they are unable to sustain a relatively regulated state of play, continue experimenting with less complex forms of play. In both the classroom and home learning environment, we can continue to reduce the complexity, until finding the category of play where the child can sustain their attention in a relaxed and joyful state.

The story about Dimitri, below, provides a practical example of how this approach can be used in real life. Dimitri started preschool with some significant challenges. His play and social skills were a good two years ‘behind’ milestones. However, rather than using an approach that punished, pathologised or pushed Dimitri to be different, we elected to use play. This allowed us to work with Dimitri’s strengths, and to find ways that he could be himself. Using this approach highlights that ‘adult involvement’ in children’s play-based learning is not an either-or option. Rather, it is a gentle relationship – or dance – where we dive in and out, depending on the child’s needs. By focussing on, and developing our knowledge about each child’s play motivations, we can more easily individualise learning experiences (5).

Meet Dimitri

After our first period of covid lockdown, I received a brand-new cohort of newly minted four-year-old preschoolers. Lockdown had a significant effect on the skills that these pre-schoolers came with. Among those preschoolers was ‘Dimitri’.

The first thing you would notice about Dimitri was his deep blue eyes. When he looked at you, he seemed to gaze deep into your soul. He had a thick mop of wild black hair which only served to highlight the piercing blue of his eyes, which would sparkle when he smiled. Very quickly, however, we realised that being rewarded with Dimitry’s smiles would require intensive work on our part.

Dimitri’s challenges

Dimitri found separation from his mother painfully difficult, and would only settle if provided undivided attention from one of our educators. When we felt he was settled, and turned our attention to other children, Dimitri would quickly melt into a puddle of uncontrollable, heartbroken sobs.

Dimitri seemed interested many of the play options we had at preschool, but always seemed uncertain of how to participate unless one of our educators was right beside him, providing direct instructions. If he was left to engage in any sort of play, he would typically become intrusive with other children. For example, he took great delight in drawing on other children’s belongings: not only their drawings, but also their clothes. When other children reacted or responded to him negatively, he was devastated. No matter how we tried to support him, Dimitri seemed unable to reconcile his own behaviour with its natural consequences. He was genuinely confused, and painfully hurt, by other children increasingly excluding them from his play.

Using Chazan’s framework, I was interested in how we could support him to play in a way that built his skills, his attention, his confidence, his connection with others and – ultimately – his capabilities for self-determination.

Finding the Motivation

The first step was to observe Dimitry in his chosen play activities. As I began observing, Dimitri most frequently engaged in ‘play’ by intruding into groups and knocking over or breaking objects that other children were playing with. Based on his body language, Dimitri seemed to derive great joy and pleasure from doing this.

I initially thought that Dimitri’s play might be most aligned to cause-effect explorations, and then gross motor. Eventually I settled on ‘exploratory’ play as the driving motivator. In this type of play, the child is driven to experience the properties of different objects and materials. Many early childhood researchers refer to this as ‘schematic play’.

We then set up opportunities for Dimitri to engage in exploratory play. We thought that we might have found his motivator because he immediately ceased his interference with other children’s play. But it wasn’t long before we began to see other challenges emerge. For example, Dimitri would play with the materials in one way but then would simply stop and sit passively. It was as if he was not able to consider that the materials could be played with in more than one way.

Gradually, Dimitri’s passivity gave way to more dysregulated activity. Most commonly, he would smash objects down on the table, or against other things, with a deliberate attempt to break them. However, even this dysregulated play gave some invaluable clues. As I watched closely, I could see fleeting expressions of genuine and deep joy on Dimitri’s face. These almost always followed instances where there had been a loud noise or a movement in the object of some sort. In other words, it took a lot of observation to discover that Dimitri was finding ways to engage in sensory play.

Building Play-Based Learning

After pinpointing his motivation, working with Dimitri became so simple, it was almost embarrassing. We started by embedding opportunities for deep, but initially very simple, sensory play throughout the preschool space. This included things like play doughs, finger painting, textured materials, and ample opportunities for noise-making.

The results were immediate. Dimitri went from being unable to initiate or sustain any kind of focussed play to being sustaining play and exploration for up to two hours on end.

After about three weeks, I began adding to the complexity of materials to his play offering. This included more complex sensory experiences (such as sensory treasure hunts). But it also included adding opportunities for exploring more complex play. For example, we replaced simple play doughs with cloud dough and kinetic sand and added pourers, scales, boxes, and other objects. This allowed Dimitri to ‘dip’ into exploratory and even sorting/ aligning/ pattern-making play, while still using his sensory play to remain regulated and in a play state.

Importantly, this expansion of play possibilities within a single play experience, meant that other children (with different motivations) were able to join the play as well. This not only created an inclusive setting for all children – each with different motivations and interests – but increased the social learning within the play exponentially.


(1) Bodrova, E, Germeroth, C & Leong, DJ 2013, ‘Play and self-regulation: Lessons from Vygotsky’, Journal of Play, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 111–123.

(2) Landreth, G 2012, Play therapy: The art of the relationship 3rd edn, Taylor & Francis, London.

(3) Siraj-Blatchford, I 2009, ‘Conceptualising progression in the pedagogy of play and sustained shared thinking in early childhood education: a Vygotskian perspective’, Education and Child Psychology, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 77–89.

(4) Chazan, SE 2002, Profiles of play: Assessing and observing structure and process in play therapy, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London.

(5) Kernberg, PF, Chazan, SE & Normandin, L 1998, ‘The Children’s Play Therapy Instrument (CPTI): Description, development, and reliability studies’, The Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 196–207.