What is Play? 

Play is an occupation that all kids engage in for the purpose of enjoyment and recreation. However, there is much more to play than we may think! 

Why is play important? 

Play is how children LEARN and GROW! It is a means for children to explore and understand the world around them. Play helps children develop a wide range of skills… from communication and social skills, to sensory processing and motor skills! 

Did you know there are different types of play with peers and different types of individual play skills? Below is a brief description of both social play skills and individual play skills and the age expected range children will develop these skills. 

Social Play Skills 

  • Unoccupied Play (Birth – 3 Months) – movements of the body
  • Solitary Play (Birth – 2 Years) – playing independently
  • Spectator/Onlooker Behavior (2 Years) – observation of play and peers
  • Parallel Play (2+ Years) – playing side-by-side with peers
  • Associate Play (3-4 Years) – interaction with peers during play, but not working towards the same play goal
  • Cooperative Play (4+ Years) – playing with peers with a shared play goal 

Individual Play Skills – Children use what they have learned through exploratory play to develop an enhanced understanding of objects, toys, and play concepts, and figure out how they can be more creative with their play and engage in play activities, both individually and with peers!

  • Exploratory Play (Birth – 8 Months) – sensory and motor exploration of toys
  • Cause/ Effect Play (1-2 Years) – learn their actions have an effect
  • Functional Play (1-2 Years) – using items for their intended purpose
  • Constructive Play (1-2 Years) – building and making items
  • Pretend Play (2+ Years) – using imagination during play

Cognitive Development Associated With Play Skills – When we look closely at play skills, it is important to acknowledge the cognitive skills required! Below are the different cognitive skill levels that children progress through as they age. Is your child not quite at a cognitive level yet? Model that type of play with them! 

  • Sensorimotor (Birth – 2 Years) – learning about the environment through movement and sensation 
  • Symbolic (2-4 Years) – learning what objects mean and how to use them 
  • Constructive (4-7 Years) – building and developing with objects 
  • Games With Rules (7-12 Years) – understanding the concept of “fairness”, following structured game rules
  • Recreational (12-16 Years) – learning and understanding more complex and competitive games 

How to Encourage Play 

As we have learned, play is crucial for a child’s development and growth! Therefore, it is incredibly beneficial to create an environment that encourages and promotes play many times throughout the day… Here are some ways to do that! 

  • Create time for unstructured play
  • Set up social engagements with peers, not just family members! (playgrounds, social groups, camps, etc.) 
  • Praise children for their play – acknowledge their ideas and creativity 
  • Ask open ended questions about their play plan (“Tell me more about what you are building”,”What is your plan to climb that?”) 
  • Trust your child! Try to avoid using phrases like “Be careful” when climbing or trying something new. Challenging their motor skills increases their confidence! Stand close by, spot them, and offer them the ability to ask for help when they need it. 
  • Play with them and model different play skills! 
  • Allow kids to get messy – this allows kids to explore different sensations and develop their sensory processing skills
  • Be silly and have fun 🙂 

For more in-depth information on age appropriate play skills and social emotional skills, please visit the following links! 

For more in-depth information on age appropriate play skills and social emotional skills, please visit the following links!



We also recommend the following resources to help foster the development of play skills at home: 

Book– Opposnakes

Podcast- Teach me to talk Laura Mize Podcast


(n.d.). Guild to Communication Milestones. Linguisystems. https://www.carolinatherapeutics.com/wp-content/uploads/milestones-guide.pdf

(n.d.). Stages of Play. Teach me to Talk. https://teachmetotalk.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/Stages-of-Play-Chart-from-The-Autism-Workbook-compressed.pdf

(n.d.). Play Age and Stage. The OT Toolbox. https://www.theottoolbox.com/play-by-age/

Greiner, Bobbi. (2020). Childhood Occupations & Play [Lecture]. OTD 435, Creighton University, Omaha, NE.