The Importance of Play

Playing is an essential way that children explore their world, the people around them, and make connections that help them develop. Play supports development within the brain, the body, and socially. When children are able to direct play, they are motivated to learn about what their bodies can do, what their minds can imagine, and how others can have a part in new and exciting possibilities for play.

There are many different types of play, all with unique developmental benefits to skills and learning. Let’s explore what various play types look like, their benefits, and how you can nurture a setting where each type is encouraged.


Sensory play happens when children delve into activities that spark their sense of touch, smell, sight, and sound. This type of play builds connections between language and motor skills, increases children’s awareness of their bodies, and helps children explore stimulating their senses in comfortable ways.

This type of play promotes cognitive growth, constructing pathways in children’s brains between their body, the environment surrounding them, and what sensations they find soothing or exciting. Sensory play can be flexible, it can be an activity that infuses energy into children’s playing, or it can be calming. It also boosts motor development, whether that is through zipping or buttoning fabric or balancing on a bike.


A few ways you can encourage sensory play for your little one is to make sensory bins full of objects that have different textures or include music and other noises in spaces where they play. Colorful toys and media are also excellent ways to enact their sense of sight. There are so many opportunities to bring senses to life, feel free to be creative!

Big Body

This style of play centers movement that uses your whole body, such as running around, jumping, or climbing. This includes interactive play like wrestling, jostling against each other while playing, and collaborative full-body playing. Some specific examples are games like capture the flag, climbing on a jungle gym, or tug-of-war!

Big body play benefits children in many ways, giving them the opportunity to practice social skills through communication with playmates, learn nonverbal and verbal cues, and learn how to take turns and follow rules set by others. Individually, it helps children exert energy and is often an exhilarating way to play.

One way you can support this type of play at home is by creating a safe space indoors or outdoors that allows for rambunctious physicality and open communication about comfortability while playing.


This kind of play is seen when children play independently around others, often doing similar tasks but remaining engrossed in their own activities. What is happening on a soft level within parallel play is that children are observing one another, modeling their behavior, and taking in social cues to inform their own approaches to and patterns of play.

During parallel play, young children practice motor development in multiple ways, testing out muscle groups when playing by lifting and carrying toys or carefully building a tower. Children also learn about sharing and setting boundaries for space and toys, and practice independence as they play around others. Parallel play is often seen as a marker of cognitive progress in toddlers, but can be seen in children of many ages.

To promote parallel play, you can organize play dates or opportunities for your little one to be around other children and foster a space where they can play with sensory-engaging toys and activities.


When children pretend, there are limitless avenues for how items and surroundings can be transformed. In pretend play, children use toys, actions, and ideas to imagine new situations they can play within. This can be done independently or with others and with objects connected to the imagined situation or completely unrelated.

The benefits of this type of play include real-life practice with negotiation and communication, testing out language, social and emotional skill improvement, and individual or collaborative brainstorming around ideas and resolutions. Whether pretend play is engaged in independently or with others, children immerse themselves in a space where they can try out scenarios, vocabulary, and roles that spark thinking and learning. 

To inspire this kind of play with your little one, utilize household items as props for pretending, repurpose items like cardboard boxes, or engage thoughtfully by asking questions about the imaginings they’re experiencing.

Social and Cooperative

Social playing occurs anytime a child engages in interactive and communicative play with others. Situations that center this type of play include role-playing, interacting with other children and adults, and playing where a situation is created and discussed.

Cooperative play works hand-in-hand with this, as children often work together in social play. Cooperative play is defined by the efforts of children to work together to achieve shared goals and resolutions, which can be expressed in different ways. For instance, these play types combine when children collaborate to build a fort, but also when a story is thought up and a happy ending for every child is accomplished.

These playing types give children the chance to brainstorm different ideas about reality and express those thoughts and feelings to the people around them, working through scenarios and practicing social skills. During social play, children practice communication and cooperation, problem-solving, and perspective-taking. Naturally, when children utilize verbal and nonverbal signals and explanations about their behavior, they learn more about themselves and others.

Social and collaborative play are encouraged by environments where children are able to openly interact and communicate with other children and adults. An environment that promotes social participation is very important. For children who are just beginning this type of play, having adults model how to express feelings and think aloud about solutions can be helpful. For example, caregivers can say things like “let’s try telling your playmates that you would like a turn being the captain of the ship, and that it makes you happy to have a turn!”

Greentrike Museums and Programs

The Children’s Museums of Tacoma and at JBLM create space for all these types of play and more, and with modern, spacious, and unique playscapes, children can have fun and learn at the same time! Both locations also have spaces to read, props distributed throughout, and the ability to relax in spaces that offer a lower sensory environment. 

In the community, Play to Learn is a great opportunity for you and your little one to engage in play and learning together while exploring Tacoma and the community spaces that support children’s learning.