16 Play Types: What is Deep Play?

Deep Play is one of the 16 play types considered to be essential for child development. It was first defined by well-known playworker Bob Hughes.

Here we take a closer look at Deep Play in order to understand what it is, why it is important and how it is supported at Smartkidz.

What is Deep Play?

Deep Play is identified as:

Play which allows the child to encounter risky or even potentially life threatening experiences, to develop survival skills and conquer fear.

This type of play is defined by play behaviour that can also be classed as risky or adventurous.  This has important benefits to a child’s development.

Deep play can happen alongside any of the other types of play – Creative play, communication play, dramatic play, exploratory play, fantasy play, locomotor play, imaginative play, mastery play, object play, recapitulative play, role play, rough and tumble play, social play, symbolic play and socio-dramatic play. You can find out more about the 16 play types in our blog post “What are the Playwork Principles and Play Types?”

Where does the definition come from?

Deep play is one of the 16 play types as outlined by Bob Hughes in his 1996 book A Playworker’s Taxonomy of Play Types.

Bob Hughes, a play worker since the 1970s, has written several books for people who work in a play-based environment and the sixteen play types form the basis of understanding of the complexity and importance of play.

Why is Deep Play Important?

Play led by children will naturally include elements of Deep Play as they explore the world and test their own boundaries. Therefore, Deep Play is important to give children the full spectrum of experiences.

Exposing, let alone encouraging, our children to face risks, fears or even dangers can feel counter-intuitive. However, the brilliant thing about this happening as part of Deep Play is that it is all done within the control of the children who are part of the play. As a result, they drive the experience and have the choice of how far they want to explore this particular play.

In doing so, children can test their own boundaries and often discover strength, confidence, skills and abilities that they perhaps did not know they had. They can conquer fears, dispel myths or doubts about themselves and build self esteem through what they have experienced.

Examples of Deep Play

There are many examples of Deep Play and it can look hugely different from one child to another. The situations that bring about the risk element central to Deep Play will be individual to each child. For one child climbing to the top of a tree might be “death-defying” whereas for another it might feel an “easy” activity. For one child whizzing down a hill on their bike might be exhilarating whereas for another it will be facing their fears.

At Smartkidz children can experience Deep Play in many ways and we often post about them on our Facebook page too!

Playing in the dark

Playing in the dark is a way that some children can remove their fear of the dark. Using torches and creating dens with other children gets them out and playing in the dark and makes it full of fun rather than full of fear.

Lighting fires

“Don’t play with matches” must be one of the oldest and well-known rules for children. However, learning to light a fire with matches or a flint demonstrates several of the play types: Mastery Play, as the children learn to control their environment with the fire they are building; Recapitulative Play as they connect with a primitive skill that has been practiced for millions of years; and Deep Play as they build confidence in dealing with the potential danger and risk of fire.

Recapulative play

Playing on slack lines

Slack lines offer huge potential for Locomotor Play in their complete physicality. Children have to balance, use upper and lower body strength and hand and eye co-ordination and that is just if it they are being using a slack line individually!

As well as Locomotor Play, for some children, Deep Play is involved here too. There is an element of risk for a child to either have a go for the first time or to test and build their confidence as they go higher and higher and allow the incline to make them go faster and faster.

There may even be an element of collective Deep Play as the children discover how many of them can get on together!

How is Deep Play Supported at Smartkidz?

At Smartkidz Deep Play occurs as a natural part of child-led play. Loose parts play or outdoor play might mean the children create structures or environments for themselves where they encounter risk or have to challenge themselves by jumping from height or crawling into a tight space.

Smartkidz provides a supportive environment and allows children to take part in riskier play.  

If we feel that a child is putting themself in danger, then we will coach them into risk-assessing the situation for themselves asking question such as: “do you feel safe?”, “Are those branches too thin to stand on?” or “What might happen if you/if the……?”. This allows the child to remain in control of their own Deep Play and develop confidence not only in their own risk-taking but in their own risk assessment and decision-making.

Dr Shelly Newstead said, Deep play can prove challenging for adults as well as children, as adults often worry when they see children taking physical, social or emotional risks in their play. The natural tendency is of course to protect children from all potential harm, but sometimes this can result in adults destroying valuable deep play experiences for children in relatively harmless situations. This is one of the reasons that our staff are PARS playwork trained, so that they can make balanced decisions about when they need to step in to prevent harm and when they should allow deep play to continue uninterrupted.

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Deep Play is a vital type of play for children. It is often found combined with other play types. Deep Play can look very different for each individual child depending on what activities they see as risky and what things may cause them to be fearful. Whatever the variation in activity however, the outcome of Deep Play helps children to develop confidence in themselves. In turn, Deep Play builds self-esteem as children conquer their fears and tackle risks within the control of their own play.