Types of Play & How it Relates to Autism


There are different phases of play that a child will go through as he/she is developing.  How long a child stays in each phase is dependent on the child, but each stage is important because a child will learn valuable skills as they learn to play and play to learn.

In general, there are 6 different stages of play as defined by Mildred Parten.
  1. Unoccupied Play-this is when a child is not playing, but may be observing others.  The child may stand in one spot or perform random movements.
  2. Solitary (Independent) Play-this is when a child can focus and pay attention to the activity they are involved in.  They are usually unaware or uninterested in what others are doing around them. The child explores and usually experiments with cause and effect behaviors.
  3. Onlooker Play-this is when a child may observe what others are doing and may make comments to those participating, but does not actually join the play.
  4. Parallel Play-this is when children may play next to each other with like materials, and may imitate each other’s actions, but they are not necessarily playing togethers.
  5. Associative Play-this is when children may be interested in each other and socializing together but they do not have an organized activity they are participating in together.  They may be in a group interacting, but they are all doing their own thing.
  6. Cooperative Play-this is when children are interested in each other and in the activity they are doing together.   They will have an organized activity with assigned roles as they work together cooperatively.
So what does this have to do with autism?  Well, no matter who the child is and what his/her strengths and weaknesses are, these stages of play are still important in their development.  Some children may get stuck at one level or another.  There are many children who do not know how to participate in solitary play because they get stuck in the Unoccupied Play stage.  There are others who are stuck in the stage of Onlooker Play.
Some children need more assistance and encouragement to move forward through these stages, and as parents, family, educators, therapists, etc., we have the great privilege of helping these children by teaching them how to play!

I love that I get to teach kids and parents how to play.  Sometimes when there is a skill (like playing) that usually comes natural to children, it can be tricky figuring out how to break things down to teach that skill to a child.  That’s one of the reasons I love the P.L.A.Y. Project, it gives families the methods and techniques they need to help their child progress through those developmental stages that every child needs to go through.

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