Play Developmental Milestones

Play is a child’s main occupation. Babies, toddlers and young children will put effort, energy and attention into play because they find it inherently interesting and fun. Children need to play — it facilitates their sensory, motor, social and emotional skills.

All children develop at their own pace. Below are some general guidelines to consider*.

  • ​The baby engages in exploratory play — also called sensorimotor play.
  • Play is focused on bonding with caregivers.
  • The baby may explore the parent’s hair, body and face and the parent may encourage the baby’s exploration of objects such as rings, rattles or soft animals.
  • The baby will engage with repetitive movements to experience different sounds, sights, touch and feelings.
  • At this age, play is not just about toys, it’s about back-and-forth interactions — anything from singing a song during a diaper change to cooing and smiling back and forth.

  • ​The young toddler engages in functional play — also called relational play.
  • At this age a young toddler will understand the purpose of a toy and can operate it according to the function.
  • Children learn through play when they can cause things to happen or change. Therefore, cause-effect play is important at this age such as dumping and filling and manipulating toys that twist, turn, crank, make noise or light up.
  • The young toddler also begins to play games such as “peek-a-boo” and “pat-a-cake.”

  • ​The older toddler engages in pretend play — also called symbolic play.
  • The older toddler makes inanimate objects perform actions — such as a doll eating or a car driving through a garage.
  • The older toddler enjoys both solitary play such as building with blocks or completing puzzles and social play such as imitating peers.
  • The joy of movement becomes more self-directed as the older toddler delights in swinging, climbing and sliding; they often enjoy and request extremes of movements.
  • The older toddler can now put together a sequence of several actions such as placing people inside a toy bus and pushing it across the floor.

  • ​The young child will combine actions into entire play scenarios. For example the child will feed the doll, put the doll’s pajamas on and then put the doll to bed.
  • The play experience becomes more social; two or three children will engage with the play theme and take turns or change roles.
  • Pretend play becomes more abstract and an object can be used to represent something else — a block can become a phone, a large box can become a car, a swing can become a space ship.
  • The young child’s motor skills are improving so they can enjoy tricycles and throwing games.

  • ​Play is now highly social and focused on peer relationships.
  • The preschool age child participates in circle time, singing and dancing games, and art time.
  • Group play replaces parallel play and the preschooler shows interest in being a friend.

Make an Appointment

If you have concerns about your child’s play skills, please talk to your pediatrician and call to schedule an appointment with an occupational therapist for an occupational therapy evaluation. Call 1.800.KIDS.DOC (1.800.543.7362) to schedule an appointment at Lurie Children’s.

*Information adapted from:

  • ​Beery, Keith E, PhD., Beery, Natasha A, MA. Beery VMI. Minneapolis, MN: NCS Pearson.
  • Erhardt, R.P (1982). Erhardt Developmental Prehension Assessment. Laurel, MD: Ramsco Publishing Co
  • Exner, C.E. (2001). Development of hand skills. In J. Case-Smith (Ed.), Occupational therapy for children(4th ed., pp. 289-328). St. Louis, MO: Mosby.
  • Mulligan, S. (2003). Occupational therapy evaluation for children: A pocket guide. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
  • Greenspan, S. (1999). Building Healthy Minds. New York, NY: Da Capo Press. ​