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Firstly – What is play?

‘Play’ is a fundamental skill that has an important role in a child’s development. It may seem it’s just kids mucking around, but it has a serious side: it contributes to cognitive, social, physical and emotional well-being.

Play is usually unstructured and controlled by the child, and this presents a real opportunity for parents to fully engage with their children.

Play allows children to use a range of skills, encourages imagination and creativity and builds physical, cognitive and emotional strength. It also develops so many varied essentials such as dexterity, decision making, confidence and resilience.

It’s easy to see that children playing a game are practicing skills, discovering areas of interests and increasing physical activity levels. But when children play, they are also exploring and conquering fears, learning to work in groups, to share, negotiate, resolve conflicts and learn self-advocacy skills. This can flow through to help children adjust to the school setting and enhance their learning readiness, behaviours and problem-solving skills.

As parents and caregivers, just observing a child at play gives us an opportunity to see the world from a child’s perspective. It’s a fantastic aid to building enduring relationships and you can end up learning to communicate more effectively with your child.

Even though play is spontaneous and unstructured, we can expect it to take a predictable path, the stages of play, and we can define different types of play. 

Stages of Play

The five stages of play are:

  • Onlooker play – watching and observing (0 – 1 years).
  • Solitary play – playing by themselves (1 – 2 years).
  • Parallel play – playing near others but not engaging with others (between 2 – 3 years).
  • Associative play – playing with others but sometimes playing by themselves (between 3 – 4 years old).
  • Cooperative play – playing with others and will not continue to play without a partner (above 4 years old).

Types of Play

Different types of play can include:

  • Functional play – investigation of how common objects work and are used.
  • Construction play – building things with objects.
  • Game play with rules – board games that have a clear set of rules for playing.
  • Outdoor and movement play – activities that involve physical movement.
  • Symbolic, dramatic and pretend play – common activities done in everyday life as play. 

How to get the most from play

The best approach is often to observe your child playing, and from this you should be able to work out how to approach and join in on the play.

Try to see what your child is looking at and what they are doing. Figure out what has got their attention. Your child will be motivated to interact with you if you join their activity instead of introducing something new.

If you approach your child and join in the activity and try to match what your child is doing, you’ll have the most chance of success. Get down on your child’s level, face-to-face to find a playful way to join in with what your child is doing.

Your child might not like it if you start touching a toy they are already playing with. Sometimes it’s easier to sit nearby and observe quietly for a few moments. Then, you could take a part of the toy and have a quick turn with it e.g. add a block onto the tower the child is building or push one of the cars down the ramp.

This way you are joining in but not interfering too much with your child’s play.

You should allow your child to direct the action and follow their lead. Copy what they do if you’re not sure how to join in on the play. Copy and then wait to see what your child does, and then copy again. You can use this to ‘take turns’ and keep the interaction going. Use simple language to talk about the toy and the actions you are both doing.

Eventually, you can expand on your child’s chosen play theme without being too intrusive or interruptive.

Keep following your child’s lead and avoid the temptation to show them how to use the toy or do something else. Keep observing your child and their interests, being playful and attentive. Pause and wait after you take your turn to see what they do next. Respond to them if they communicate in any way.

Most importantly, have fun! If you are having fun and are acting playful when you join in with your child, it’s more likely your child will enjoy themselves and want to keep the interaction going. They’ll also realise that including others while they play with objects can be really fun too.


If you have concerns about your child’s play development, contact a Speech Pathologist to further discuss how you can best support your child in this way.


If you’d like to read some detailed information, here’s what we suggest: 

  • Ginsberg, K.R. (2007). The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. American Academy of Paediatrics. 119 (1).
  • Quinn, S., & Kidd, E. (2018). Symbolic play promotes non-verbal communicative exchange in infant-caregiver dyads. British Journal of Developmental Psychology. 10.1111/bjdp.12251.
  • Wegner, L. (2019). The Importance of Play-Based Therapy. Handy Handouts.

Written by Katie Laakmann.