About the 3 dimensions of play

Over the last century, researchers from different fields have studied playful behaviour of children, in an attempt to understand what is play and play development. At KBT we aim to innovate in product lines to facilitate emotional and physical development on playgrounds. In order to understand the needs of children and to create an ideal environment for them to grow, it is important to learn about how children develop and how play-activities evolve during their early life.

Jean Piaget was one of the first to propose a classification of cognitive levels of play in 1945. His classification was characterised by growing levels of complexity. He distinguished 3 types of cognitive play: Practice play, Symbolic play and Games with rules.  The three types of cognitive play emerge in specific periods of the life of typically developing children. Jean Piaget himself researched the development of children and in 1936 proposed 4 main periods: sensorimotor period (0-2y), pre-operational period (2-7y), concrete operational period (7-11y) and formal operational period (11-...y). These periods roughly align with the development of the different types of play. In practice, it is clear that many actual play activities tend to balance somewhere in between multiple classes.

Mildred Parten Newhall (1932) was the first to consider and describe different types of play in its socio-emotional aspects: Solitary play, Parallel play, Associative play and Cooperative play. Also the socio-emotional levels of play are characterised by growing complexity and are developed in consecutive stages of a child’s development. During solitary play, the child plays alone and independently even if surrounded by other children. During parallel play the child plays independently, doing the same activity at the same time and place as other children. An example of this is swinging next to each other on regular swings. During associative and cooperative play, there is considerable amount of sharing, taking turns, or children agree on a common goal and assigned roles.


The first 2 dimensions: Cognitive and Socio-emotional play

The stages of cognitive play and socio-emotional play can be seen as different dimensions of the same field. Each type of cognitive play can be played at different social levels: in a solitary, parallel, associative, and cooperative way (Bulgarelli, Bianquin, 2017). This may be visualised in a graph, for example like the one below.

3D-model of play - First 2 dimensions
3D-model of play - First 2 dimensions

The first axis refers to the cognitive levels of play in the theory of Piaget. It shows the stepwise development of children and how play emerges in the specific periods of children’s life’s. In our model we reduce the number of steps to 3. In a playground, very formal games with rules are not often played, therefore the concrete & formal operational stages are combined.

The second axis refers to the socio-emotional levels of play according to Mildred Parten: Solitary play, Parallel play and Associative/cooperative play. Again here, for reasons of simplicity we reduce the number of steps to 3. Cooperative play is related to complex social games and sports. Therefore the possibilities for full cooperative play are limited on a classic playground. The differences between associative and cooperative play in practice become smaller and thus those two categories can also be joined into one.

The 3rd dimension: Physical or motor-development

Next to the cognitive and social dimension, the 3rd important element is the physical or (gross) motor development of children. In the context of playgrounds we can work with the idea that motor development follows a development path similar to the cognitive and social development of children? In particular, from the ability to carefully perform simple tasks to the ability to perform more coordinated movements in an autonomous way. Motor development will be the 3rd dimension in our model.

3D-model of play - 3 dimensions
3D-model of play - 3 dimensions

In regularly developing children the 3 dimensions are more-or-less aligned as they develop simultaneously. Social cooperative play and the ability to perform coordinated physical tasks (in a group) are for example closely linked to concrete or formal operational & structured play. To some extent however, especially on the lower end of the development spectrum, large differences between children will occur. Some children will not develop all the way, along one or more of the dimensions. This is where we start talking about diversity between children and here we can learn about inclusion or how to adapt our playground equipment to the diverse users.


Diversity and disabilities in play

Children with physical impairments experience difficulty in concretely interacting with the environment around them, using objects and toys. Exploring and moving in the space may prove very difficult for them and even impossible without any support. Naturally, this makes it very challenging to do practice and constructive types of play (besio, Stancheva-Popkostadinova, 2017). In relation to the 3D-model, children with a physical impairment will have a non-regular development path, primarily in the motoric-dimension.

Mental or intellectual disabilities imply – to various degrees – deficits in reasoning, problem solving, abstract thinking, judgement, as well as deficits in adaptive functioning, including social and practical difficulties; they may also influence a refined and effective movement coordination. Children may need support in learning from experience, often due to memory problems and to a kind of reluctance towards environmental exploration. Social relationships may be challenging too, in some cases they prefer solitary and isolate activities, in other they may behave in a too intrusive way (besio, Stancheva-Popkostadinova, 2017). All these functional aspects may affect both the socio-emotional level and cognitive level of play. Additionally also complex motoric abilities may be reduced.

An important element to take into account is the body-size of children with non-regular cognitive or socio-emotional development. Some children may have a regular body-size compared to their age, but will for example only enjoy simple cognitive tasks. Such a person may like to do simple games like swinging, while regular swing seats may not be large or strong enough for their body posture. This is an important element to take into account while designing inclusive spaces.

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are usually described as less interested in play activities than their typically developing peers. Their difficulties in the gross and fine psychomotor and coordination areas may be related to their little interest into the objects and how they work, which decreases the rate and the quality of the practice type of play. Constructive play may be equally challenging, since it is usually based on the application of fine motor skills to create a consistent final product. In fact, while they have the great ability to concentrate on details, they find it difficult to foresee an overall form, built by assembling small pieces. Pretend and symbolic play are affected by their social difficulties, for example in sharing with another the attention on the same activity or object, or in understanding the perspective from which a peer looks at (or evaluates, or perceives) the same event. Pretend and symbolic play require the ability to deal with fantasy and imagination and these abilities are not easy to achieve by children with ASD (besio, Stancheva-Popkostadinova, 2017).


Using the 3D-model while designing inclusive playgrounds

The 3D-model of play makes clear that diversity does not just mean: Regular children, children in a wheelchair and children with a visual impairment. The diversity of children and their needs and wants is much wider and also in the group of regularly developing children there is a certain diversity in age, size and development level.

The 3D-model model gives us a manageable way to investigate existing playgrounds and playground equipment, by asking ‘by which children is each product accessible or usable’. Secondly it gives us an overview of the areas where there is currently still a need to design new equipment. Thirdly it gives us a comprehensive visual way to communicate about inclusiveness towards customers and parents.

Based on the 3D-model, each playground element can get a product-score in each of the 3 dimensions. The score can be a number or colour to indicate the level of adaptation or required skill level, based on the 3x3x3 steps in the 3D-model. The numbers/colours always correspond with Basic, Intermediate or Advanced skills of potential users. This makes it possible to determine the level of accessibility of a playground by analysing the mix of toys that are available and the way they are made accessible in terms of entrances or transport routes. An inclusive playground, will be composed of equipment that caters for the biggest possible range of children, including easily accessible equipment and more challenging equipment for the adventurous players. A well designed inclusive playground will offer a wide mix of products and equipment. Taking into account the location and size of the playground, a well thought-out mix of products can be installed. The same can be done, including different playgrounds in a neighbourhood. An inclusive playground will NOT be one, where all the equipment is easy to use; but it will be one which is composed of a variety of equipment, taking into account all development levels and the variety of body-sizes of children.

Using the 3D-model of play, makes it easy to analyse and design the overall offer of your playground. On the other hand, it does not offer practical guidelines on how to actually build equipment that is fit for one or another group of children. Playground parks and equipment should be made physically accessible for all users. Various zones can be made for different groups or ages of children with different socio-emotional needs. Also many things can be done to help children better understand some aspects of the playground. All info about how to make playgrounds accessible in a practical sense, can be found in our practical guidelines article.


What about visual impairments?

A notable group of impairments that is not very well represented in the 3D-model are sensory impairments, although in some respect they can be seen as a part of ‘physical impairments’. Sensory impairments and especially visual impairments will stay a point of attention that must be taken into account while designing playgrounds. To cater for children that are visually impaired, provide clear and contrasting walking routes, use contrasting colour markers to put attention on dangerous spots, entrances, exits or protruding beams. Also hand grips and footsteps may be marked with contrasting colour-markers. More info about how to make playgrounds accessible in a practical way, can also be found in our practical guidelines article.


Are KBT products inclusive?

The simple answer to this question is: Yes! KBT offers a wide range of products in all categories and levels. Some products are more easy to use or have additional support mechanisms. Some products can be used in solitary or parallel play, others are specifically designed for cooperative group play. More information and an analysis of our own products according to the 3D-model scores, can be found in the next article: Are KBT products inclusive?


About the authors:

Filip Gerits and Yves De Keuster are designers and researchers specialised in design and safety of activity toys and play infrastructure. For this topic we were happy to count on the indispensable support of a range of experts, children and parents with experience in the field of inclusive play. We especially like to thank Kathleen Op De Beeck - specialised in occupational therapy and inclusive education at AP – university college in Antwerp, Belgium – for her input and enthusiasm. We also thank the rest of the KBT development and sales teams for their valuable input and ideas.

Sources for this article:

  • Piaget, Jean (1945). Play, dreams and imitation in childhood.
  • Piaget, Jean (1936). Origins of intelligence in the child.
  • Bulgarelli, Daniela. Bianquin, Nicole (2017). Conceptual Review of Play.
  • Parten, M. B. (1932). Social Participation among Preschool Children.
  • Besio, Serenella. Stancheva-Popkostadinova, Vaska (2017). Do children with disabilities play?

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