What does play look like?

Bob Hughes’ 16 play types, illustrated by Alejandra Gomez

Playground Ideas
4 min readDec 2, 2015

by Elizabeth Moreno

No one had to tell us how to play as kids. We just…did it. But as adults, defining what qualifies as play is a trickier task — so complex that it has become an area of research. The “playwork” field can be studied to masters and PhD levels. Leading playwork theorist Bob Hughes has identified 16 different types of play. You can read more about these types in his 1996 book A Playworker’s Taxonomy of Play Types, London: PLAYLINK, UK.

Symbolic Play — “play which allows control, gradual exploration and increased understanding without the risk of being out of one’s depth.”

Sometimes children use objects to represent something they imagine to be “real.”

Rough and Tumble Play — “close encounter play which is less to do with fighting and more to do with touching, tickling, gauging relative strength. Discovering physical flexibility and the exhilaration of display.”

Sometimes children look like they are fighting. They tackle, tickle, and wrestle with each other just for fun.

Socio-dramatic Play — “the enactment of real and potential experiences of an intense personal, social, domestic or interpersonal nature.”

Sometimes children imitate the everyday activities they see the adults around them do. They pretend to be mothers and fathers, to cook a meal, or drive a car.

Social Play — “play during which the rules and criteria for social engagement and interaction can be revealed, explored and amended.”

Sometimes children make up new games and create their own rules to follow.

Creative Play — “play which allows a new response, the transformation of information, awareness of new connections, with an element of surprise.”

Sometimes children may use tools and materials to design create, and build something creative and unique.

Communication Play — “play using words, nuances or gestures for example, mime, jokes, play acting, mickey taking, singing, debate, poetry.”

Sometimes children use their voices in play. They joke, make funny shounds, and mimic the voices of others. They sing, debate, and rhyme.

Dramatic Play — “play which dramatizes events in which the child is not a direct participator.”

Sometimes children try out what it’s like to be a big, important person. They imitate the people — politicians and celebrities — they see on TV or play-act the weddings, funerals and ceremonies they see in their community.

Deep Play — “play which allows the child to encounter risky or even potentially life threatening experiences, to develop survival skills and conquer fear.”

Sometimes children do risky things when they play. They experiment with fear and danger.

Exploratory Play — “play to access factual information consisting of manipulative behaviours such as handling, throwing, banging or mouthing objects.”

Sometimes children use their eyes, ears, hands, and even mouth to play — they use their senses to discover.

Fantasy Play — “play which rearranges the world in the child’s way, a way which is unlikely to occur.”

Sometimes children’s imaginations run wild. They dream up fantastical stories of make-believe.

Imaginative Play — “play where the conventional rules, which govern the physical world, do not apply.”

Sometimes children play with their imaginary friends.

Locomotor Play — “movement in any or every direction for its own sake.”

Sometimes children like to move their bodies in every direction!

Mastery Play — “control of the physical and affective ingredients of the environments.”

Sometimes children will try an activity over and over again until they’ve mastered it.

Object Play — “play which uses infinite and interesting sequences of hand-eye manipulations and movements.”

Sometimes children play with ordinary objects in new ways.

Role Play — “play exploring ways of being, although not normally of an intense personal, social, domestic or interpersonal nature.”

Sometimes children try on what it would be like to be someone else. They experiment with being a teacher, a bus driver, or a police officer.

Recapitulative Play — “play that allows the child to explore ancestry, history, rituals, stories, rhymes, fire and darkness. Enables children to access play of earlier human evolutionary stages.”

Sometimes children’s play mimics basic survival skills. They run and hide, pretend to build shelters, or dam streams.

These illustrations and descriptions also appear in Playground Ideas’ “Teacher Training Manual.” The manual covers a basic introduction to the importance of play in education with a specific focus on common challenges students and teachers in the developing world face. It is a guide to help teachers utilize the resources and play traditions within their own culture to support play both inside and outside the classroom.

Playground Ideas is a non-profit organization that equips anyone, anywhere to build a stimulating space for play using only local materials, tools, and labor. Through our open-source website and DIY plans, we have supported over 950 communities from Azerbaijan to Zambia to build play spaces, impacting over 475,000 children.

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