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Why Play is So Important for your Baby

Play is a part of your child’s healthy development. It’s as important as diet and getting a good night’s sleep. It’s so vital that the United Nations lists play as one of the basic rights of every child

There are 6 stages of play during early childhood.

  • Unoccupied play (birth to 3 months)
  • Solitary Play (birth to 2 years)
  • Spectator / Onlooker behaviour (2 years)
  • Parallel Play (2+ years)
  • Associate Play (3-4 Years)
  • Cooperative play (4+ years)

Reaching these play milestones is important for development. Play improves the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of your child. It helps refine the use of their seven senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, taste, vestibular (movement), and proprioceptive, (body position).  It also teaches them a bunch of skills they need to form relationships, in school, for transitions, and in conflict resolution.

Some of these skills include:

  • confidence
  • self-esteem
  • resilience
  • interaction
  • social skills
  • independence
  • curiosity
  • coping with challenging situations

Let’s look at the 6 stages of play and what they entail. Next we’ll discuss how children on the Autism spectrum have trouble progressing through the stages of play.


Stage 1: Unoccupied Play

At this stage your baby is moving their arms, legs, hands, and feet. They’re learning about and discovering how their body moves.

This stage teaches baby proprioception skills. Your baby is learning how to reach, hold, and touch things in their environment. They are building their coordination. Tummy Time can also be considered a form of unoccupied play.


Stage 2: Solitary Play

This is the stage when a baby plays alone. They’re not interested in playing with others quite yet. This is important because it teaches your baby how to entertain themselves.

Your baby engages in activities that are self-directed, such as playing with toys or exploring their environment. You can see signs of focus developing and increasing at this stage. Your baby/toddler can also play for longer periods of time than in the unoccupied stage

Solitary play helps your baby/toddler develop their cognitive skills. They’re learning to explore and experiment with their environment. They’re learning to recognize patterns, form mental images, and identify objects.

As they learn to explore and experiment with their environment, they start to develop their problem-solving skills. This stage of play also helps your baby/toddler to develop their sense of self-awareness and independence.


This stage of play remains unstructured.

Stage 3: Spectator/Onlooker Play

During this stage of play your child begins to watch other children play but doesn’t play with them. Your child is learning from the other children by  observing them.

You might feel the urge to encourage your child to join the other children in their play, but this stage is important.

Sometimes it’s easy to think children engaged in onlooker play might be lonely or scared to engage with other children, when in fact it is a very normal part of play development

Your child is taking in everything, just as they did as babies during unoccupied play. They’re learning how other children play, recognizing social interactions, and the rules of play.

Stage 4: Parallel Play

Parallel play happens when your toddler begins to plays alongside or near others but does not play with them. They’ll be playing with similar toys, but not playing together.


This stage helps your child further develop social skills.  They aren’t directly interacting, but they will often share toys without playing together directly.

Children will be using the same toys but playing separate games right next to each other. Social skills are being learnt by observation. For example, your child might put something down, and the other child picks it up. Even though your child put it down, they might not be happy with the other child taking it. At this stage, your child starts learning to understand social cues and develop empathy.

They’re learning to recognize the emotions and feelings of others, and they’re learning to take turns and share.

This stage of play also helps children develop their communication skills, as they are learning to


Stage 5: Associate Play


This is the stage when your child starts to interact with others during play, but there’s not a large amount of interaction.

Your child might be doing an activity related to the kids around them, but might not actually be interacting with another child. For example, kids might all be playing on the same piece of playground equipment but all doing different things like climbing, swinging, etc.

At this stage you’ll see the skills your child learned through onlooker and parallel play start to come into practice. They have an interest in interacting with another child, not just the toy.  

Stage 6 Cooperative Play

When your child plays together with others and has interest in both the activity and the other children involved, they’ve reached the cooperative play stage. Now your child begins to play with others toward a common goal or play scenario.

Often at this stage of play your child will engage in imaginative or pretend play, They’ll often create imaginative worlds and recreate scenes that they’ve read in books, seen in movies, or on tv. I think my daughter and I acted out the scene in Frozen where Ana wakes up Elsa because “the sky’s awake” at least a million times lol.

They’re also developing their language skills and learning how to compromise and negotiate. This stage of play also helps your child develop their self-confidence and



Children on the Spectrum


Why is it a problem when a child doesn’t develop past the solitary play stage?

Playing is learning for children. Play is the only way to help a child develop their social and communication skills with others. If a child gets stuck and can’t move past solitary play, they don’t develop all the skills mentioned above.

Young children with autism spend more time unengaged and in solitary play. Researchers have pinpointed the two areas children on the spectrum have trouble with.  Joint attention and symbolic play.

Joint attention (JA)

Joint attention is socialization with another child by engaging in sharing an object or a situation. When you experience something, you enjoy it more when you share it with someone else. This is a struggle for children on the spectrum.

Some kids on the spectrum struggle with JA because:

  • They struggle to make eye contact
  • They struggle to shift their attention from one thing to another
  • Structure: They don’t understand the rules of the play or the other child doesn’t stick to the rules.
  • Their communication skills are delayed
  • They would rather play alone

Children begin to display JA around 12 months old.

Symbolic Play

Symbolic play happens when your child starts to use objects to represent (or symbolize) something else. in symbolic play, a child progresses from playing with toys functionally, to allowing the toy to be something else. For example, in symbolic play a block can be used as a phone.

Kids on the spectrum “get stuck” and can’t move beyond, a truck rolls. They call this stereotypical play. A child with ASD can’t imagine new scenarios for that truck. They just roll it back and forth and line it up with other trucks. They develop rigid rules about their play.

Children on the spectrum are very unlikely to observe others' behavior and imitate that behavior. Symbolic play and pretend play are learned through observation. They start through imitation. Pretend play scenarios can get really elaborate and a child’s communications skills need to be advanced in both receptive and expressive communication to be able to take part. None of these skills, observation, imitation, communication, are a strength for children with autism.

Symbolic play develops between 18-20 months.


Here’s how you can help your child


Countless Studies have found that focusing on a child’s ability to play greatly improves their language and social skills. If your child has been diagnosed and you’re waiting for care, focus on play. This is something you can do at home that can be a positive experience for both you and your child.



So I know this was a long one, but it’s incredible to learn how play shapes our children.


What as your biggest take away from this article? Please comment below.

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