Stories from my personal journey learning about and delivering Nature-rooted programs across three different countries

Play theory: understanding 'play types' and how they relate to Forest School...

Caylin (Forest Schooled)
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“We're on a ship,” she said, “and we're going to a desert island. We're out of food so we have to go get some.”
I just happened to be standing nearby when this 4 year old girl named Ella had decided that I was to be a character in her imaginary story. I was taken a little off guard as I'd been in the middle of something. So I did what any seriously preoccupied person would do... I abandoned what I'd been doing, put my pretend sailors hat on, and boarded the supposed ship with her.
Ella took the 'wheel' as captain and we navigated our way to the island. A few moments later she said, “We're at the island now. We need to get coconuts and bring them to the ship,” and ran off without even a glance back. I hesitated briefly, then thought, “Well, I guess I better go too!” So I jogged off after her.
Then she stopped and looked up towards the sky. I looked up too (I didn't really knowing why, but I was trying my best to understand and be in 'her world'). Then she started moving her arms and legs up and down, as if crawling, but in a vertical direction. I stood watching from a short distance away, waiting for a cue of what to do next. She stopped and turned to see where I was. I think she was a bit annoyed that I was standing there looking clueless. She barked, “Come on! Here are the coconuts. You need to take them to the ship.” I then realised she had been pretending to climb a coconut tree!
I took the imaginary coconuts from her and, holding them tightly in my arms, turned around to head back to the ship. But I stopped as I suddenly thought, “Oh crap... where's the ship?!” I glanced around and found the spot where we had first started, assuming the ship must still be there. I placed the coconuts down and turned to look at her.
“No not there!” she exclaimed, “The ship is here now!”
“Whoops!,” I said as a I picked the coconuts back up and walked over to put them in the 'correct' place this time. Ella took the wheel of the ship again and we made our way back to sea. Then another 4 year old girl came over to see what we were up to (she must be a strong swimmer, those seas were choppy!). The play soon morphed into something else and the ship and all those carefully collected coconuts disappeared.
This brief interaction with Ella was a little bit challenging for me. It made me tap into a part of myself that's a little bit rusty – my imagination. Kids are naturally inclined to 'see' and interact with things that aren't really there. They do it all the time, creating incredible imaginary worlds and scenarios. But when you try to do it as an adult, you often feel... well... a little bit crazy. And even when you do throw your ego out the window, it's still really difficult to interpret the world inside a child's head because you can't always 'see' what they 'see' (Hence why I unintentionally deposited the coconuts on the wrong ship... or in the middle of the ocean... I'm still not even sure where I put those coconuts...).
Because we can't always tap into a child's world during play, it can sometimes be difficult to identify or understand how they are playing. I have found Bob Hughes' theory of 'Play Types' very useful in gaining a better understanding of how and why kids play. Hughes identified 16 different types of play behaviours that children display:
  1. Symbolic play
  2. Rough & tumble play
  3. Socio-Dramatic play
  4. Social play
  5. Creative play
  6. Communication play
  7. Dramatic play
  8. Locomotor play
  9. Deep play
  10. Exploratory play
  11. Fantasy play
  12. Imaginative play
  13. Mastery play
  14. Object play
  15. Role play
  16. Recapitulative play
These do not necessarily cover all the ways children play and there is often overlap between two or more categories. Nevertheless, understanding these play types can be really helpful when planning, observing, or participating in children's play.
However, if you're like me, 16 is a difficult number when it comes to remembering things! That's why I made some resources to help me recall the different play types and how they can be supported at Forest School. I've drawn a scene with characters or objects associated with each of the 16 play types. They are also numbered which corresponds to a worksheet that has written descriptions of the play types if you want more information about each one. You can download it for free here. Hope you find it useful!

P.S. You could also use the drawing like a Where's Wally/Waldo book – can you find all 16 play types from the list?!
P.P.S. I was seriously so close to drawing a little Wally/Waldo character in there...
Note: Descriptions in the worksheet were taken from a summary of Hughes' 16 play types.
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Play Types at Forest School

Drawing of a Forest School scene with characters or objects associated with each of the 16 play types identified by Bob Hughes. They are also numbered which corresponds to written descriptions of the play types if you want more information about each one.

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