Developmental Milestones of Play

The Importance of Play

Play is incredibly important for a child’s cognitive, physical, social and emotional development. Play helps children develop skills that will help them overcome the bigger challenges of life as they grow older. In other words, play is learning.


Fine and Gross Motor Skills

Play develops fine and gross motor skills. For example, playing with Legos helps children develop their fine motor skills, or ‘little muscles’ in their fingers. This can contribute towards helping them one day hold a pencil and write confidently.


Play also builds ‘big muscles’, or gross motor skills, usually developed through games and sports, help children get faster, stronger and better coordinated – all important for healthy physical development.


Social Skills

Children also learn social skills through play. When playing with other children, they learn how to share, negotiate, resolve conflicts and cope when things don’t go their way – skills that are still important as adults, be it in adult relationships or work meetings.


Build Relationships

Playing is also a wonderful way to build relationships with others, particularly parents and caregivers, and can create enduring relationships that last a lifetime.


Explore Hobbies and Interests

The sheer variety of play also allows children to be exposed to music and potential future hobbies, giving them an early way to explore interests they could pursue further in the future.


It’s Fun

Perhaps above all, play is fun. It creates a lot of simple joys and cherished childhood memories, setting a child up for healthy adult development from the start.

Why is Play Important for Children with Autism?

For children with autism, there are additional reasons why play is important:

  1. Learning play activities so they can play with other children
  2. Developing appropriate ways to replace self-stimulatory behaviours
  3. Occupy their time independently to give parents some rest time and break

However, many children with autism do not know how to play. At least, not in the typical way play is expected to look like. Instead, a child with autism’s version of play may involve:

  • lining up toys in exactly the same pattern again and again
  • rolling a car back and forth and staring at the wheels repeatedly, or
  • tipping all the toys out of a box 

Why is Typical Play Challenging for Children with Autism?

Difficulties with Engagement

Many children with autism find engagement, sometimes known as joint attention, difficult. This is the ability to focus on the same thing as someone else. 


Lacking engagement can make it difficult for a child to imitate or copy someone else teaching them something. For example, trying to teach a child where a triangle goes in a shape sorter when they are not looking nor paying attention.


Difficulties in Imaginative Play

Some children with autism find imaginative play, such as pretend tea parties, pirate treasure hunts, and police and robbers, hard. All these games require the ability to pretend that something is something else. For example, that plastic tea party food is real food.


While not all play is imaginary play, being able to play imaginatively indicates a child who can use their language to create stories, plan and problem-solve.


Difficulties with Social Communication Skills

Much of play requires the ability to read other people’s intentions and emotions, follow along when rules change, or compromise when we need to. These are all skills that can be challenging for children with autism to learn.

Can Children with Autism Learn to Play Successfully?

The answer in many cases, is, yes. The question is – how?

The foundational core skills are cooperation, attention and imitation. Attention and imitation in particular, are important for learning play, but many children with autism struggle in these area. They may not be interested in a toy or activity, have fleeting attention or even obsessive interest in only very specific things. 


Motivation, which in turns impact cooperation, become important for teaching children to develop attention and imitation, thereby learning new plays. Hence, a child must have these four foundational skills strong in order to learn play:

  • Motivation
  • Cooperation
  • Imitation 
  • Attention

Play, just like learning to talk, read or brush teeth, is a skill, and can be taught as long as it is broken down, reinforced and there is plenty of practice.

The Developmental Milestones of Play

Play looks different as a typical child grows older. For example, how babies play is different compared to how a four or five-year-old plays.


Knowing about the developmental milestones of play allows us to:

  • Identify what stage a child is at,
  • and what stage we want to try and get them to, as much as possible

There are six stages of play:

  1. Unoccupied play
  2. Solitary play
  3. Onlooker play
  4. Parallel play
  5. Associative play
  6. Cooperative play

A typical child would usually have gone through all six stages of these plays by the time they are 4 years old and above.

Unoccupied Play

From 0 to 3 months, a child is engaging in unoccupied play, because they are still babies. At this stage of life, a baby is moving their arms and legs around, learning about how their body moves. This will set the stage for playing in the future and with others.

Solitary Play

For much of the first 2 years of life, a child will largely be doing solitary play. They are happy to play on their own, and not yet interested in playing with other children. This stage is still important as children will learn to occupy themselves.

Onlookers in Play

Around the point of 2 years, children become onlookers in play – they haven’t begun playing with other children yet, but are starting to watch other children play.

Parallel Play

It is past the point of 2 years where a child might start to play alongside or near others, known as parallel play.


While there might not be a lot of social contact at this point, children in parallel play start to learn some simple social skills, like taking turns, or copying each other.

Associative Play

It is once a child reaches 3 years old when they start to play associatively. This is when they may start to do similar activities together, like use different equipment on a playground or build a city of blocks together. 


They may begin talking more to each other, like asking “What should we build now?” or working together to “Make the city even bigger!” 


This is when they learn how to use the language they have been working on the past 3 years to really get messages across to each other.

Cooperative Play

It is around age 4 when children truly start to play together, known as Cooperative Play. At this point, games and activities become more complex and rule-based. Children aren’t just building blocks, they might be creating entire puzzles together, playing a board game, or playing outdoor sports like football.

Cautionary Note

It is important to note the above age ranges are just guidelines. As with any developmental milestone, it is common for even typical children to move a little faster or slower on their milestones.


For example, children who are more shy might take longer to join a group of children. On the other hand, children who grow up around siblings or other children may get into group play much faster.


Always consult with your doctor or paeditrician to check if your child is meeting their milestones. 


Even better, monitor your child’s developmental milestones yourself, such as through the free Centre for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Milestones Tracker app. This app is designed for children aged 2 months to 5 years and comes with easy-to-use checklists, tips for encouraging your child’s development, and recommendations on what to do if you have concerns.

CDC’s Milestone Tracker

Do Children with Autism Follow the Developmental Milestones of Play?

For children with autism specifically, it is possible for some to have delays with certain stages of play, and not progress as quickly as other kids their age. For example, a child with autism who is 5 years old and should be playing with other kids by that age, but is still only at Solitary Play.


Children with autism may need an adult’s direct support to teach them how to play appropriately, and get from one stage to the next.


This play series will focus on how to teach children the different stages of play, by approaching the types of play there are, and how they contribute to the development of play milestones:

  • Interactive Play
  • Toy Play
  • Sensory or Messy Play
  • Independent Play
  • Imaginative Play
  • Games and Sports

Some children with autism will be able to go through all six stages of play, while some who are more affected may only reach a certain stage due to the additional social and communication demands that make later stages too complex for them. This does not mean we should not continue to try to expand and progress children’s play skills along.

Your Turn

  1. Observe your child and how they play. 
  2. Try to identify which stage of play they are at, regardless of how old they are.

Remember, it is possible to have a much older child who is still only at a parallel or solitary play stage.


  1. Ginsburg, K. R. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1), 182-191.
  2. Rock, Amanda. (2020, January 23) Important Types of Play in Your Child’s Development. Verywell Family. 
  3. Rudy, Lisa Jo (2020, September 2). The Reasons Autistic Children Play Differently. Verywell Health.