To create a school or nursery playground that engages all children, it is important to understand the different ways that children play. Here, we look at how seven different types of play appeal to children of different ages and interests, discuss the benefits they bring and explain why playground design needs to cater for each of them.
1. Solo play
Solo play is that which children like to do on their own and is usually the first form of play that a child participates in. It is, however, something people continue to do not just through childhood, but into adulthood too. Solo play can include things like building a sandcastle, going down a slide, traversing a climbing wall or kicking a ball against a wall. Highly engaging, it can be useful for developing creative and problem-solving skills, as well as enabling children to learn about themselves and the world they live in.
2. Social play
As the name suggests, social play involves taking part in play activities with others, whether that’s with adults or children, small groups or large. Participation helps children to develop important social skills, understand social norms and build relationships with others. Additionally, it helps with the development of communication, cooperation, rule-following, negotiation and problem-solving skills.
3. Free play
Free or unstructured play is where children are given free rein to play as they please. Obviously, in an educational setting, this will be supervised by adults for safeguarding reasons, but the activities that children choose to undertake is entirely up to them and can be either solo or group play.
The choice of outdoor play equipment is important to provide adequate free play opportunities. The greater the variety available, the greater the choice for children. How they decide to use that equipment, however, can be quite different to how it was intended. The great thing about free play is that it allows children to develop their independence and let their creativity roam free. When this happens, they can come up with some highly imaginative ideas.
4. Unstructured play
The opposite of free play is structured play – that which has a purpose and is planned, organised and has ground rules. In schools and nurseries, it is the teaching staff who organise and supervise the play and the activities are carried out in order to achieve an outcome that is often learning related. Aside from EYFS or curriculum-related learning, structured play also helps children learn how to follow instructions and behave appropriately in organised activities.
5. Physical play
While play tends to get more sedentary as we get older, children love to indulge in highly physical activities: running, jumping, climbing, swinging and sliding, etc. This includes everything from chasing games and playing sports, to playing on climbing frames and play towers.
While physical play offers children endless opportunities for fun, these kinds of activities are also very beneficial for developing physical and motor skills and for both physical and mental wellbeing. Ideally, children should have an hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day and this type of play offers the ideal opportunity for them to get it.
6. Sensory play
Sensory play is that which enables children to have sensory-rich experiences and is particularly valuable for younger children and children with SEND. Schools and nurseries should provide sensory play opportunities that address sight, touch, hearing and smell. To achieve this, playground design and equipment needs to provide different colours, textures, sounds and smells. A common practice, today, is to create a sensory zone within a playground. A nature zone with flowering, scented plants and a water feature is another great way to bring the senses to life.
7. Creative play
Children naturally like to make things and the playground provides a range of opportunities to do this. These include activities like building dens, making mud pies and sandcastles, arranging toy building blocks and creating art made from twigs and leaves. Again, this type of play is beneficial to developing creativity and problem solving, and it can also help those important fine motor skills.
Of course, children don’t need to build things to be creative. They will quite easily begin a role play with friends, start drawing or painting and if there are outdoor percussion instruments at hand, will even attempt making music. Ensuring these activities are catered for can widen the creative play choices that children have access to.
As you can see, there are many different types of play that children can participate in and each has its own benefits and value. To give children the widest opportunities to learn, develop and have fun, schools and nurseries should consider these different types of play when designing their playgrounds and provide appropriate equipment for each.
For more information about playground design, visit our Free Playground Design Service page.