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Making sense of play: Recognising patterns of play to help support your child’s natural growth and development

If you’ve ever been mystified by your little one’s fascination with repeating certain actions while playing, you’re not alone! Play for our children is everything. It’s how they explore, discover, and learn about their world and how to interact with it. Children’s strong, internally driven urges lead them to explore their ideas and theories about the world through repeating patterns of play.

There are many different types of patterns of play, and your child may even explore more than one at a time. As parents, recognising and understanding these patterns allows us to help enable our little ones’ development by supporting them as they play. It also helps to eliminate any confusion, and sometimes frustration, adults may have with the way children play (like why they insist on getting more paint on themselves than on the paper!).

Clever Play understands that young children learn about the world around them through play. So we aim to help develop young minds by helping you recognise your child’s patterns of play to encourage their natural growth and development and foster confidence in themselves as learners.

There are all kinds of different patterns of play, and some are easier to spot than others. A few of these patterns are included in our quiz, but there are many more. What do you notice your child doing over and over again? What big ideas might they be testing? Find out which patterns of play your child is exploring by taking our quiz!

Frequently asked questions

Is it possible for my child to show no repeated patterns in their play?

Is it possible for my child to show no repeated patterns in their play?

Any pattern in your little one’s play is an exploration of the world around them — even if we don’t have a specific label for it. By identifying repeated patterns, we see that play is purposeful and contains intellectual content, even if it might seem perplexing to us. All play can be a learning activity, helping to build the fabric of our children’s brains.

We’ve covered several patterns that are commonly explored and relatively easy to spot, however it is entirely possible that your child is exploring an idea in a less obvious or familiar pattern that we haven’t covered here.

Sometimes we may miss identifying a play pattern because a child moves on from exploring one to another very quickly. Or, they may explore two patterns at once but one appears more obvious to you.

For example, a child who has been spending a long time exploring Transforming with baking, making sandcastles in the sandpit and crushing them, squirting paint and smearing it around, may also have a long track record of experiences with Trajectory as well. But perhaps the Trajectory activities don’t seem nearly as obvious to someone observing their play because the ideas are more subtle, or the messiness of the Transforming stands out more.

It’s possible that a little one may ‘skip’ a certain pattern of play entirely. We’re not sure why children become more fascinated with some patterns of play rather than others, or why they choose not to explore one at all.

Even if we can’t identify exactly which pattern of play a child is using, we can still recognise their play as meaningful and purposeful and support their interests in the world around them in whatever ways nourish them best.

If you’re keen to identify what kind of patterns of play your child is using to learn about the world, take our short quiz!

Will my child explore all patterns of play?

Will my child explore all patterns of play?

When it comes to how many patterns of play your little one will explore, every child is different! Some will explore several if not all of our identified play patterns. Others might have a strong interest in one or two they explore consistently for a long time, returning to them again and again and potentially making your patience frazzle! But not all patterns will be explored obsessively or to the same extent by all children.

You may possibly notice a development process as their focus shifts from one play pattern (or group of play patterns) to another. This may be because they’ve satisfied their urges and curiosity about a concept they’re exploring. There’s no need to push children to try new patterns of play or skip certain ones — the curiosity and drive will come naturally from them.

The best thing to do is to simply pay attention to your child’s repetitive actions and to have conversations about these activities that nourish and extend them. Offer ways for your children to explore their patterns of play with more depth and variety of experiences.

For instance, if your child is focused on Enclosing, what different objects and materials could you supply them with to help make boundaries for toys and objects? If you child is focused on Transforming, what new ways could you set up water, paint, sand or mud for messy play outside? How could you talk to your child about Trajectory urges without being judgemental or discouraging?

It’s also important to note that children may need to repeat their actions far more than adults may realise — and just because we lose interest in an activity doesn’t mean they have! Remember, repetition in play is how children learn about the world. Offer them chances to repeat activities and explorations they are enthusiastic about. If you notice their interest fading, offer a variation.

Our quiz covers only a few of the more common fascinations. There are many more, and some are subtle and much harder to spot. If you notice something your child is doing over and over again, you know it is important to them. Having the ‘right’ label isn’t as important as noticing what is important and finding ways to support your child to explore those ideas.

Now that you know a little more about how your child learns through play, you can support their growth. If you’d like to learn more about different patterns of play, check them out here and discover loads of fun ways to support your child’s learning.

Have fun playing and learning together!

How long will my child experiment with one pattern of play for?

How long will my child experiment with one pattern of play for?

Children’s fascinations are as unique as they are, and the same goes for the amount of time they will spend exploring them. You may find your little one is absorbed by a certain pattern of play for just a few weeks or months before moving on to another interest, while other urges may persist for months or years, maybe even into adulthood, for example in hobbies like sailing, baking, skiing and redecorating. So, the patterns they explore in their early years may continue into primary school and possibly even longer.

Over time, patterns of play develop to become more complex as a child’s thinking develops. Vocabulary may grow to include more words that relate to their fascinations, artwork may reflect their play interests and pretend-play may feature and expand on different concepts they are exploring. For example, a young child might explore Trajectory urges, throwing objects or toys or knocking down blocks, versus how a school-age child might throw themselves off a swing or jump off a wall into the sand. Or perhaps they might combine Trajectory with Transporting patterns by running and jumping together, or carrying or throwing things as they jump, experimenting with these activities over and over.

Don’t lose patience if you offer an activity and your child doesn’t get stuck in. While children are often changeable, their play fascinations tend to persist. If you offer opportunities and resources that are based on play patterns you have experienced before with your little one, you will tend to have better luck rousing their interest.

However long your child sticks with a play pattern, the aim is always to help support their growth with encouragement and engagement. If you’d like to learn more about different patterns of play, check them out here and discover loads of fun ways to support your child’s learning.

Could my child become interested in a certain pattern of play because they see their friend doing it?

Could my child become interested in a certain pattern of play because they see their friend doing it?

It’s entirely possible for your little one to become intrigued with an activity their friend is experimenting with. But a pattern of play is just that — a pattern. Usually you should expect to see your little one explore their fascinations in different places, with different resources. And that means both in the presence of their friend and on their own.

And it’s also often likely that children with similar play patterns will play well together. So why not invite a fellow parent to do the Clever Play quiz and compare results? Line up a playdate and have fun experimenting with different play activities and ideas they’d both be interested in exploring.

Remember, children engage in patterns of play because of a natural, internal urge to do so. So, if your little one does start showing patterns in play that their friend is exploring, it’s likely they would have developed this fascination on his or her own eventually.

It might be that they were “almost ready” to explore that pattern on their own, and seeing their friend exploring those questions and ideas brought forward their own exploration. They may have felt that curiosity like a gap in their understanding of the world and wanted to fill it. You might find they explore the pattern in the same ways as their role model, or in their own unique way.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter if their interest in a play pattern was sparked by a friend or not. What’s important is to keep being aware of changes in your child’s play patterns and try to nurture those without judgement and help them fill in gaps in what they know and understand to build their confidence as capable learners.

If you think you’re observing a new play pattern emerge in your little one’s play, you can always return to our Clever Play quiz at any stage to help you identify what those patterns of play might be!