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Play Preferences of Developing Children

This cross-sectional survey research investigated play preferences of children with and without developmental delays who were between 3 and 7 years old. Parents completed questionnaires regarding their child’s play activity and context preferences. Valid results were obtained for 166 children, 83 of whom had developmental delays. Preference ratings were compared by gender, age, and delay status. Play preference did not differ by gender. Rough-and-tumble play and computer/video game play increased with age, whereas object exploration decreased. Children with developmental delays had higher preferences for rough-and-tumble play and object exploration and lower preferences for drawing and coloring, construction, and doll and action figurine play than typically developing children. This comparison of children’s play preferences across ages, gender, and developmental status enhances our understanding of how these variables influence children’s play.


This cross-sectional survey research investigated play preferences of children with and without developmental delays who were between 3 and 7 years old. Parents completed questionnaires regarding their child’s play activity and context preferences. Valid results were obtained for 166 children, 83 of whom had developmental delays. Preference ratings were compared by gender, age, and delay status. Play preference did not differ by gender. Rough-and-tumble play and computer/video game play increased with age, whereas object exploration decreased. Children with developmental delays had higher preferences for rough-and-tumble play and object exploration and lower preferences for drawing and coloring, construction, and doll and action figurine play than typically developing children. This comparison of children’s play preferences across ages, gender, and developmental status enhances our understanding of how these variables influence children’s play.

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Play is a primary childhood occupation and as such deserves the utmost attention from the occupational therapy profession. In the past, many authors have written about play as a means to measure other skills (Bundy, 1993) or as a reflection of child development (Sparling, Walker, & Singdahlsen, 1984). Play has been observed, categorized, labeled, and studied by researchers in many fields (Cole & la Voie, 1985; Fein, 1981; Gesell, 1940; Parten, 1932; Saunders, Sayer, & Goodale, 1999). Previous research has clearly demonstrated that children progress through stages and exhibit differing play preferences over time (Cole & la Voie, 1985; Fein, 1981; Lowe, 1975). Recently, occupational therapy scholars have stressed the importance of examining play as an occupation rather than analyzing its component parts (Bundy, 1993; Couch, Deitz, & Kanny, 1998, Knox, 1997; Parham & Primeau, 1997).

Influences on Play Preferences

Many variables (e.g., gender, culture, environment, and age) influence a child’s play occupations. This descriptive study explores young children’s play preferences and investigates how play choices vary according to the child’s age, gender, and typical development versus developmental delay status.


Research has repeatedly demonstrated gender differences in the play of typical children (Caldera, Huston, & O’Brien, 1989; Connor & Serbin, 1977; Meyer-Bahlburg, Sandberg, Dolezal, & Yager, 1994; Saracho, 1990). In early studies of preferences related to gender, researchers found that girls preferred dolls and house toys and boys preferred blocks and transportation toys (Fein, 1981). Recent research continues to find gender-related differences in many aspects of play beginning at early ages. For example, as early as 1 year of age, children make different toy choices based on their gender (Servin, Bohlin, & Berlin, 1999). At 18 months of age, boys preferred to play with trucks and trailers, whereas girls preferred doll-related activities (Lyytinen, Laakso, Poikkeus, & Rita, 1999).

Gender differences are found in many aspects of play. Boys are more likely to choose physical and block play over dramatic and manipulative play, and girls are the reverse (Saracho, 1990). Although boys are more likely to enjoy vigorous or active play, girls are generally rated as more playful (Saunders et al., 1999) and more likely to enjoy both dyadic interaction (Benenson, 1993) and smaller play groups than boys. Within dramatic or fantasy play, the type of fantasy play performed differs by gender. For example, girls use more verbal pretending and choose different play themes (Wall, Pickert, & Gibson, 1989) and demonstrate less aggressive content (von Klitzing, Kelsay, Emde, Robinson, & Schmitz, 2000). Girls’ fantasy themes tend to be complex and abstract. In contrast, boys’ play is more physically vigorous and they tend to choose simpler fantasy themes, such as playing superheroes (Pellegrini & Bjorklund, 2004).

Boys and girls also differ in play with computers and video games. Boys generally play video games more frequently and for longer time periods (Kafai, 1998), and they tend to play games in which competition is important. Girls like games with in-depth social interactions and character development; they appear to enjoy participating in a story more than participating in a competitive game (Salonius-Pasternak, 2005).


A child’s age is related to both play skills and play preferences for the type and context of play. Developmental changes in play skill have been found in a variety of studies of children’s play. For example, pretend play first emerges between 1 and 2 years of age and increases in prevalence and frequency throughout the preschool and kindergarten years (Fein, 1981). Play preferences have been shown to begin early in life. Infant toy preferences are noted by mothers as early as 3 months of age, and by 1 year of age almost 90% of infants have a favorite object (Furby & Wilke, 1982). Children have also demonstrated changes over time in their preference for specific forms of play, such as physical play.

In one study of physical play, the authors found that preference for each of three types of physical play peaks at a different age (Pellegrini & Smith, 1998). Rhythmic stereotypes dominate during infancy, exercise play peaks during the preschool years, and rough-and-tumble play is most common during middle childhood. Age also interacts with gender to affect the choices. For example, the preferences of young children for gender-segregated groups begin to change in pre-adolescence (Brown, 1990), as do the gender-specific preferences for indoor and outdoor play (Pellegrini, 1992). Age may be less of a factor in play development in children with disabilities (Sigafoos, Roberts-Pennell, & Graves, 1999).

Developmental Delay or Disability

Multiple studies have demonstrated that children with physical disabilities play differently than children who are developing typically. Children with physical disabilities spend more time in passive activities (Brown & Gordon, 1987) and may demonstrate less active involvement with objects (Gowen, Johnson-Martin, Goldman, & Hussey, 1992). Children with physical disabilities spend more time with adults than with their peers and participate more in passive activities, such as television watching, than in active and varied play experiences (Howard, 1996). In addition, children with physical disabilities, cerebral palsy in particular, may be less playful than their typically developing peers (Okimoto, Bundy, & Hanzlik, 2000).

Based on previous research, it is unclear whether children with disabilities have different play preferences or merely have an inability to access various forms of play. One study demonstrated that children with mild motor disabilities held preferences similar to children without disabilities (Clifford & Bundy, 1989). In a study investigating object play preferences in children with an autistic spectrum disorder, Desha, Ziviani, and Rodger (2003) found that the children (41 to 86 months old) engaged predominantly in functional play and preferred toys with salient sensorimotor properties (toys that produced sound or movement with minimal effort). Other research has suggested that children with autism prefer toys and play situations that are structured and predictable (Ferrara & Hill, 1980).

Contextual Variables

Contextual factors may affect play occupations. Researchers have demonstrated that children have fairly stable preferences for play partners, including the gender of play partners (Hay, Payne, & Chadwick, 2004; Martin & Fabes, 2001), play settings, and play objects (Knox, 1997). Other studies suggest that the physical environment impacts children’s development of play occupations. For example, outdoor play provides children with opportunities for sensory exploration (e.g., in dirt, water, sand, and mud), learning about space, and vigorous physical activity. Indoor play offers opportunities for quiet play, reading, drawing, construction, and computer games (Clements, 2004).

Research Questions

The literature on children’s play preferences suggests that children have clear preferences that are influenced by gender, age, and developmental status. Examining the current play choices and preferences of children is important to further understand the development of play occupations and what variables influence a child’s play choices. This study investigated the play preferences of children with and without developmental delays who were between 3 and 7 years old. The specific research questions that guided our survey research were the following:

1. Do boys and girls differ in their play activity preferences?

2. Do children’s play activity preferences differ by age in early childhood years?

3. Do play activity preferences differ between children with developmental delays who receive therapy services and children with typical development?



Convenience sampling was used to recruit parents of children with typical development or with developmental delays (who received occupational, speech, or physical therapy services) who were between 3 and 8 years old to complete a survey describing play preferences. A total of 330 surveys were provided to parents of typically developing children and children with developmental delays in the Northeast and the Midwest regions in the United States. In the Midwest, participants were obtained through a large childcare center and two preschools. All participants in the Northeast were obtained through two large private practice clinics. To obtain a sample of typically developing children in the Northeast, parents of children receiving therapy services in the clinics were asked to complete a survey for a sibling without developmental problems.


The survey was based on Takata’s instrument (Takata, 1969) that measures play preferences and the categories were modified to reflect modern play activities. The survey required parents to respond to a list of play activity preferences for one of their children. Studies have demonstrated that mothers can accurately rank play activities (Tamis-LeMonda, Damast, & Bornstein, 1994) and parent report has been used previously in research of children’s play preferences (Finegan, Niccols, Zacher, & Hood, 1991).

The survey listed play activities and contexts and asked parents to rate their child’s preference for each activity and context. Parents were also asked to provide information about age, disability status, and gender. The parents were asked about play preferences within a 3-month period because other researchers have suggested that play preferences remain relatively stable within this period of time (Finegan et al., 1991). Parents were not asked questions regarding their nationality, race, ethnicity, social class, or socioeconomic status because these factors have not been demonstrated to be related to play preferences (Meyer-Bahlburg et al., 1994). To pilot test the survey, two peer reviewers commented on the items and then six parents completed the survey and were asked to comment on its format and clarity and the amount of time it took to complete. Minimal revisions were made to improve clarity.

The final survey listed 37 play activities in 11 categories of play and 11 contextual variables. The survey used a 4-point Likert scale for scoring, with each play activity rated from highly preferred (4) to not preferred (1), and respondents could also select not applicable. Individual activities were listed under broader categories (e.g., gross motor play, creative play, and pretend play). The second part of the survey asked for the child’s preferences for specific play environments, including social context (e.g., friends or family) and physical contexts (e.g., inside or outside). A third section asked for descriptive information about the child (e.g., gender, birth date, diagnosis, if any, and services received).

Data Analysis

Demographic data and preference ratings were summarized using descriptive statistics. Children were combined into age groups by year by rounding to the nearest year. Although specific diagnoses were identified for the children, the children were grouped into those with and without developmental delays for purposes of analysis. To reduce the data, the individual activities were combined into play categories (e.g., gross motor, rough-and-tumble play, and pretend play). The 33 activities were collapsed into 9 play categories and the 11 contextual variables were collapsed into 4 play contexts. The figure identifies how the items were combined into categories.

When computing mean scores, the responses “not applicable” and “not preferred” were combined as a score of “1” because both responses indicated that the child did not engage in that play activity. Using each play category and play context, a three-way analysis of variance with gender, age, and disability status as the independent variables was computed. Scheffe post-hoc analyses were used to compare individual age groups. Effect sizes (Cohen’s d) were calculated for gender and developmental status comparisons. Although a Likert scale produces ordinal data, parametric statistical procedures were selected over non-parametric statistical procedures based on research demonstrating that these statistics result in the same conclusions as non-parametric tests (Glass, Peckham, & Sanders, 1972), they are preferable in most cases, and they do not increase the likelihood of a Type I or Type II error (Nanna & Sawilowsky, 1998; Rasmussen & Dunlap, 1991). Use of parametric statistics allowed us to examine the interactions among the variables.



A total of 175 surveys were returned. Only five surveys for 8 year olds were returned; therefore these were omitted from the analysis. Of the 170 remaining, 166 were sufficiently complete to use in the analysis. Demographic data for the sample are presented in Table 1.


The three-way analysis of variance identified no significant differences in play activity preferences between boys and girls (effect size ranged from .01 to .26). Table 2 lists the mean scores, analysis of variance results, and effects sizes for the primary play categories. Play preferences were remarkably similar for boys and girls, with equivalent preference for gross motor play, rough-and-tumble play, video and computer games, drawing and coloring, dolls, and pretend play. The interaction for gender and age was significant for doll play preference. Three- to four-year-old boys preferred play with dolls and action figurines more than 3- to 4-year-old girls. In contrast, 5- to 6-year-old boys preferred play with dolls and action figurines less than 5- to 6-year-old girls. Play contexts were also compared by gender. Boys (m = 2.03) and girls (m = 1.95) were equally neutral about playing alone (F [1,156] = .074; p = .786). Both boys (m = 2.63) and girls (m = 2.60) equally preferred to play with friends (F [1, 156] = .031; p = .860) and equally preferred indoor (mean range: 2.73 to 2.80) and outdoor (mean range: 2.75 to 2.86) play.

Age Groups

Play preferences were compared by age groups. Table 3 shows which play categories were significantly different for age groups between 3 and 7 years old. In this early childhood age span, changes in play preferences were few. Preference for rough-and-tumble play changed significantly from 3 to 7 years old. Rough-and-tumble play was preferred most at 5 years old and was only somewhat preferred at 7 years old. Preference for video and computer games increased significantly in this age range. Video and computer game play was scored between not preferred and neutral at 3 years old and was somewhat preferred by 7 years old. Preference for drawing and coloring and construction increased from 3 to 7 years old, but these differences were not significant.

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Preference for pretend play differed significantly across the age groups, with low preference scores at the youngest and oldest ages and higher preference scores at 4 and 5 years old. Doll and action figurine play was also highest at 4 years old; however, changes in doll play preference were not significant across age groups. When play contexts were compared across the age groups, children showed no differences in preference for playing alone (range: 1.88 to 2.23; F [4,156] = 1.3; p = .272) or with friends (range: 2.27 to 2.93; F [4,156] = 1.95; p = .105) or for playing indoors (range: 2.35 to 2.86; F [4,153] = .793: p = .531) or outdoors (range: 2.50 to 2.91; F [4,152] = 1.23; p = .300). The least preferred play context across all ages was alone.

Children With and Without Developmental Delays

Play preferences of children with developmental delays were compared to those of children with typical development. Mean scores, analysis of variance results, and effect sizes are presented in Table 4. Children in the delayed and non-delayed groups equally preferred gross motor play, but rough-and-tumble play was preferred more by children with developmental delays, demonstrating a moderate effect (d = .52). In the quiet play categories, typically developing children preferred drawing and coloring more than children with developmental delays. For drawing and coloring, there was also an interaction with gender: preferences of boys with developmental delays (m = 2.57) were lower than those of boys with typical development (m = 3.42), but girls were equivalent in the two groups (developmental delays m = 3.13; typical development m = 3.19). In children with developmental delays, preference for doll and action figurine play was significantly less and preference for object exploration was slightly greater than for children without developmental delays.

Although pretend play did not differ in these groups, the interaction of age and developmental delay status for pretend play preference was significant. In younger children (3 and 4 years old), those who were typically developing preferred pretend play; this preference reversed by 7 years old when preferences of children with developmental delays were significantly higher than typically developing children for pretend play. Play preferences for these two groups of children are rank ordered in Table 5. The five most preferred play forms for children with typical development were gross motor, drawing and coloring, reading and watching television, construction, and rough-and-tumble play. The five most preferred play forms for children with developmental delays were rough-and-tumble play, gross motor, reading and watching television, drawing and coloring, and construction.

Preferred play contexts also differed for the two groups. Although both groups were neutral about playing alone, children with developmental delays showed a lower preference for playing with friends (m = 2.29) than children with typical development (m = 2.93) (F [1,156] = 13.11; p < .001; d = .57). Children with and without developmental delays were similar in their preference for indoor (range: 2.66 to 2.86) and outdoor (range: 2.72 to 2.87) play.


Gender Comparisons

A surprising finding was that boys and girls held the same or similar play preferences. For example, we found no differences between boys and girls in doll and action figurine play or pretend play. In contrast, most of the research literature has concluded that boys and girls prefer different types of play. In older studies (Fagot, 1974, 1978; McDowell, 1937), girls and boys preferred different toys (i.e., girls preferred dolls and house toys, whereas boys preferred blocks and transportation toys). During the preschool and early childhood years, boys are more likely to adopt fantasy and aggressive play (e.g., monsters or fighting) and girls are more likely to play house (Fein, 1981). One possible reason for our finding that boys and girls were similar in play preferences is that we broadly defined doll play to include play with action figurines (e.g., Batman, Spiderman, and robots), which are considered boy toys. With dolls defined this broadly, boys and girls did not differ.

In the research literature, pretend play is not the only play category where boys and girls differ. In two studies of children between 4 and 12 years old, boys preferred rough-and-tumble play and girls preferred quiet play (Finegan et al., 1991; Saracho, 1990). Saracho (1990) found that boys are more likely to prefer physical and block play over dramatic and manipulative play, and girls were the reverse. In a review of electronic play, Salonius-Pasternak (2005) reported that boys spend more time in video and computer game play than girls. Our study found no differences between boys and girls in preference for gross motor, rough-and-tumble play, or video game activities. Gym sets, trikes and bikes, and playgrounds were preferred play activities for both genders.

When genders are compared, preferences of boys and girls were remarkably similar. Boys were slightly, but not significantly, higher than girls in rough-and-tumble play (d = .26), and other areas that differed in previous studies (e.g., preference for video and computer games and drawing and coloring) were equivalent. The equivocal results between our study and those that preceded it may be explained by their different methodologies (e.g., our survey used parent report and listed both boy and girl examples of the play categories). Gender differences may not exist when broad play categories are measured.

Age Comparisons

When the ages of the children were compared, three categories showed significant differences across age groups. Rough-and-tumble play increased from 3 to 5 years old, and then decreased from 5 to 7 years old. As preference for rough-and-tumble play decreased, preference for video and computer games increased.

Other researchers (Salonius-Pasternak, 2005) have documented the increase in computer game play, which begins at 7 years old and peaks in adolescence. As documented in the literature, pretend play increases during the preschool years (3 to 5 years old) and decreases after 6 years old (Fein, 1981), when rule-governed games begin to dominate play (Parham & Primeau, 1997). Other categories showed expected trends, but differences among the age groups were not significant. Gross motor play (defined as bike, trike, tag, and gym set activities) did not decrease across the age groups and was consistently a highly preferred activity. Drawing and coloring, construction, watching television, and reading activities remained somewhat preferred throughout the age range.

The development of play skills has been well documented by researchers (Rosenblatt, 1977; Takata, 1969); however, most research has focused on the first 2 to 3 years of life, which is when play skills change dramatically. Our study captured ages during which play preference is stable for certain forms of play and evolving for others. Takata (1969) conceptualized 4 to 7 years old as one play epoch. Dramatic role playing, social role playing, and realistic construction characterize this epoch. Play preferences appear to change substantially after 7 years old, which is when children prefer games with rules and social play in the context of organized games. Our findings regarding the effect of age on play preferences, which were significant but not dramatic, may reflect that our age range was essentially one play epoch (Takata, 1969).

Differences Between Children With and Without Developmental Delays

In our sample, children with developmental delays were primarily children with sensory integration dysfunction, autism, pervasive developmental disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or general developmental delays. Children with these diagnoses often have motor planning difficulty, sensory processing problems, and social and communication limitations without frank motor, manipulation, and mobility impairments. The play preferences of children with developmental delays were consistent with the performance limitations associated with these development disorders.

Children with developmental delays preferred rough-and-tumble play significantly more than children with typical development. This preference may reflect the sensory needs of children with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, pervasive developmental disorder, or sensory integration disorder. Rough-and-tumble play, such as wrestling and rough housing, provides children with deep tissue pressure and joint compression, which is the proprioceptive input that helps their systems organize and calm (Baranek, 2002; Blanche & Schaaf, 2001). In addition, rough-and-tumble play does not demand fine motor skills or precision performance; it is play in which almost every child can participate and succeed.

The other play category in our study preferred significantly more by children with developmental delays was object exploration. Object exploration reflects basic sensory motor play that predominates in children 1 to 3 years old and decreases during the preschool years as more skillful and symbolic play emerges. The higher preference by children with developmental delays probably reflects preference for simpler, lower demand play activities. In other play forms, typically developing children showed higher preference; they preferred drawing and coloring and dolls and action figurines more than children with developmental delays. These play forms require fine motor and manipulative skills, and they require higher levels of cognitive ability, imagination, pretend, and understanding of symbols.

In addition, the interaction of pretend play, age, and developmental delay was significant. At younger ages, pretend play was preferred more by children with typical development; this reversed at older ages, when pretend play was preferred more by children with developmental delays. Therefore, the children with developmental delays developed an interest in pretend play at older ages, which is when interest by children with typical development was diminishing. This finding contrasts with that of Sigafoos et al. (1999), who found that children with disabilities did not exhibit play forms beyond sensorimotor and functional play. Our contrasting findings may be explained because the children in our sample were less severely involved.

Both groups were neutral (mean range: 1.81 to 2.45) for doll and action figurine play and pretend play. This neutral preference may reflect that the time spent in pretend play is minimal when compared to other play forms. Fein (1981) suggested that preschool children spend between 10% and 17% of their time in pretend play, which reflects only a small portion of boys’ and girls’ total play time. Sigafoos et al. (1999) observed that children with developmental delays spent 10% of their time in pretend play. When the types of play are rank ordered by preference, pretend play and doll and action figurine play have the lowest preference scores.

Numerous studies have documented differences in play when children with disabilities were compared to children without disabilities. Research demonstrates differences in play skills (Mogford, 1977), object and social play (Sigafoos et al., 1999), and playfulness (Clifford & Bundy, 1989; Okimoto et al., 2000). Sigafoos et al. (1999) followed preschool children with developmental disabilities for 3 years and documented that they primarily engaged in exploratory (28%) and functional play (57%) and that these percentages did not change over time. Baranek, Reinhartsen, and Wannamaker (2001) described the play of children with autism as lacking in imitation and imagination, containing fewer play repertoires, exhibiting decreased play organization, and exhibiting limited social play. Their play tends to lack flexibility and creativity (Craig & Baron-Cohen, 1999). Functional play seems to dominate in children with autism with minimal evidence of pretend or symbolic play (Libby, Powell, Messer, & Jordan, 1998).

Differences in children with sensory integration dysfunction have been identified by Parham and Mailloux (2005) and may be more subtle than the differences seen in autism (Desha et al., 2003). The play of children with sensory integration dysfunction is often limited in play scenarios because they avoid certain play experiences that cause sensory feedback discomfort and they have restricted action repertoires due to perceptual difficulties and dyspraxia (Knox, 2005; Parham & Mailloux, 2005). Using a sample of preschool age children (4 to 6 years) with sensory integration dysfunction, Clifford and Bundy (1989) did not find significant differences in play materials preferences but did find differences in how the children used toys. Our sample with developmental delays, which included autism, sensory integration dysfunction, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, showed trends similar to the literature in that the children preferred simple play forms (i.e., object exploration and rough-and-tumble play) to more complex and skilled play forms (i.e., drawing and coloring and pretend play).

When all play preference categories are ranked, the order of preference differed between groups, but the top five preferences were the same. The primary difference between the groups was in rough-and-tumble play (ranked first for children with developmental delays and fifth for children with typical development). Object exploration was the least preferred for children with typical development and dolls were least preferred for children with developmental delays.

Consistent with the literature that describes problems in social play in children with developmental delays, children with typical development had significantly higher preferences for playing with friends (d = .57) than children with developmental delays. Playing alone was significantly more preferred in children with developmental delays. Response to these items may reflect the child’s preference or may relate to actual play opportunities and experiences. Delays in communication and social interaction may create barriers for children with developmental delays to play with peers (Baranek et al., 2001; Tanta, 2004).

Clinical Implications

The findings of our study confirm the importance of physical play because, almost universally, the study participants enjoyed, and often preferred, physical play. At the same time, the participants balanced their preference for physical play with more sedentary play forms, such as reading, watching television, drawing and coloring, and construction. The range of preferences may indicate the need for relaxation as one aspect of play (Parham & Primeau, 1997). Children seem to have broad and varied play preferences because 6 of the 11 play forms were rated as somewhat to highly preferred. Individual play preferences appear to be best defined by the player and cannot be assumed based on age, gender, or disability status.

Of concern is the preference of children with developmental delays t


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