How Do Children Learn to Play?

Remember being a kid and running around the playground, coloring a picture, or playing with a special toy? Sure, you were having fun, but did you realize you were actually progressing through important milestones of play development?

Probably not–to kids, play feels like, well, play. And sometimes it even looks that way to grownups. But in fact, play is a major part of childhood development, and playing actually contributes to speech and language growth.

So how do kids learn to play? There are 6 specific stages of play that children move through as they get older. Let’s look at how babies and toddlers play as they develop, and how these milestones impact speech and language development. 

Why is play so important to early childhood development?

Play is vital for a child’s development for many reasons. One is that play allows the child and their parent or caregiver to experience something together. This promotes joint attention and provides opportunities for language modeling from the caregiver. The more children hear language, the sooner they’ll learn to use words themselves. 

Playing also promotes turn-taking. When kids take turns while playing, such as rolling a ball back and forth or making silly faces with another person, they’re learning the foundation for having a conversation. Here’s an example of a simple exchange:

Caregiver: “Do you want an apple?” 

Child: “No. Cracker.” 

Caregiver: “You want a cracker?” 

Child: “Yes!” 

Notice the questions and responses? How each person says something in response to the other? When kids start talking, the back-and-forth of their conversation will be simple at first. But with time and practice, their language skills will continue to grow!

The 6 stages of play and engagement with others 

You may be surprised to know that the stages of play can begin as early as birth! These 6 stages are related to how a child interacts with their environment early on, and with other people as they grow. Here’s how children learn to play:

1 Unoccupied play: From birth to 3 months old

A very young baby spends time learning about their body by moving their arms, legs, hands, and feet. Think about the times you’ve seen a baby lying on a blanket, kicking happily, and smiling at the ceiling fan or light. They are likely in the stage of unoccupied play. 

2 Solitary play: From birth to 2 years old

During their first two years, babies and toddlers begin to independently explore their environment. They play alone and aren’t yet interested in playing with others. So maybe you take your 20-month-old to the park to play in the sandbox. They would be focused only on what they’re doing, without engaging with other kids. 

3 Spectator/onlooker behavior: 2 to 2 and a half year old

In this stage, the child watches others play from a distance but doesn’t try to join or play with them. They’re becoming more aware of other kids, but they aren’t developmentally to the point of interacting with them. 

4 Parallel play: 2 and a half to 3 years old

The child plays alongside or near others but doesn’t play with them yet. So think about that sandbox example above. In this stage, the child would play in the sandbox next to other kids and be more aware of them, but they aren’t going to build a sandcastle together.

5 Associative play: 3 to 4 years old

At this stage, the child begins to interact with others while playing. They may even share items with another child, but there isn't much cooperation. A great example of this is kids playing with blocks together, but all building their own structures.

6 Cooperative play: 4 years and older

In this last stage of play, the child is interested in and plays with others by sharing toys and ideas. The child follows rules and plays cooperatively. So maybe a group of kids in a classroom play “house” together, or they all work together to build a fort. 

What playing looks like in kids from birth to age 5 

When it comes to the types of activities that kids play, there’s a big difference between a baby and a preschooler! Let’s take a look at some of the developmental milestones related to play activities, along with ideas for playing with your baby, toddler, or preschooler.

Play milestones: 3 months old

At this age, playing involves basic skills that help babies learn to respond to others and their environment:

  • Begins to interact face-to-face and may even coo in response to their caregiver being playful or making faces at them

  • Notices and responds to sounds

Play milestones: 3 to 6 months old

Babies begin to be able to hold and physically explore toys, setting the stage for play down the road: 

  • Shows interest in toys with sound

  • Shakes rattle

  • Enjoys playing with and mouthing toys with a variety of textures, such as soft, squishy, and bumpy

  • Grasps for dangling objects

Play milestones: 6 to 9 months old

Babies are becoming more responsive to others and to toys, so simple games like peek-a-boo are extra exciting for them!

  • Shakes and bangs toys

  • Explores toys using their fingers and mouth

  • Reacts to fun games like “peek-a-boo”

  • Anticipates what will happen next in simple games (baby scrunches their face up or turns away as you reach out to tickle them)

Play milestones: 9 to 12 months old

Babies start exploring and beginning to understand more of the cause-and-effect of toys and play tasks:

  • Squeezes toys

  • Puts toys in a container and takes them out

  • Throws intentionally

  • Begins to stack rings

Play milestones: 1 to 2 years old

By this age, a toddler’s attention span is increasing, and they can engage in more purposeful play:

  • Plays with objects and toys more appropriately (for example, pretends to drink from a toy cup)

  • Scribbles with crayons

  • Pulls toys

  • Hugs dolls and stuffed animals

  • Stacks blocks

  • Uses two objects together (mixes a spoon in a bowl)

  • Starts to use objects toward themself and others (pretends to feed you)

  • Begins to imitate others

  • Usually plays with toys without mouthing them

Play milestones: 2 to 3 years old

Play activities become more complex at this stage:

  • Begins to participate in pretend play and use toys for their intended purpose (talks on a pretend phone)

  • Uses toys to act out simple themes from their own experiences (brushes hair)

  • Pushes trains and cars

  • Builds towers

  • Completes puzzles

  • Engages in sensory play (Play-Doh, kinetic sand)

  • Plays in small groups with other children

  • Imitates other children

  • Begins to role-play (pretends to be a doctor)

Play milestones: 3 to 4 years old

Play starts to become more imaginative and dramatized at these ages: 

  • Begins to share and engage in more cooperative play

  • Reenacts experiences within their play (for example, reenacts their birthday party)

  • Begins to play roles outside of their personal experiences (pretends to be a police officer)

  • Enjoys dress-up

  • Uses one object to represent another (using a block as a phone)

  • Uses dolls actively

Play milestones: 4 to 5 years old

Playing becomes more organized and complex, often with a story plot, as well. Look at some of these examples:

  • Uses dolls and puppets to act out scripts

  • Good imaginative play

  • Plays in groups, and friendships become stronger

  • Participates in making crafts

  • Plays in new social situations

  • Plays with a toy or activity for at least 15 minutes at a time

  • Negotiates during play (Example: “You can play with my blocks but I want to play with them, too”)

What to do if your child seems delayed in speech or play skills 

If you’re noticing any delays in your child’s play skills or communication, talk to your pediatrician. You can also reach out to a speech therapist to ask questions related to your child’s speech and language. The speech therapist can complete an evaluation to help determine if therapy is needed, and if so, what goals would be helpful for your child.

Expressable offers a free online screener with questions about your child’s speech and language tailored to their age. Or, if you’d like to talk with one of our licensed speech therapists, don’t hesitate to schedule a free consult call. We’d be happy to answer your questions!

Sign up for a consultation
Discuss your communication needs with a speech therapist for free
Get started

More from

Watch learning jump (leap! spring! hop!) from your sessions into the real world.

Get started