Skip to content

How to Play with Your Child: Stages of Play and Strategies

This article is based on a presentation I completed for parents with children with varying developmental delays. In this blog article, you will learn the different stages of play. Examples of play activities in each stage will also be listed. In addition, you will learn the benefits of each play stage and how to play with your child to promote cognitive development.

Image by Freepik


  • Play is engaging in any activity for enjoyment and recreation.​
  • Play is essential for children. ​
  • It helps in the development of a child’s brain.​
  • Play builds language and social skills. ​
  • It gives children the opportunity to practice newly learned skills.

Stages of Play – Explorational​

  • In this stage a child explores the object. All senses such as taste, touch, and smell will be included as they interact with an object.​
  • In this stage actions will be simple and repetitive such as banging blocks together or moving them from place to place.​

Exploratory Play Examples

Image by Freepik
  • Allowing your child to explore your face and name parts of your face.​
  • Giving your child objects with different textures to explore.​
  • Going on a nature walk and paying attention to what you hear and see. Allowing your child to touch the grass, leaves or bark of a tree. Talking about what you feel (rough, smooth) and the colors you see.​
  • Sitting in front of a mirror and making different faces for your child to see and imitate.

Benefits of Exploratory Play

  • Critical thinking skills​
  • Problem solving skills​
  • Resourcefulness​
  • Early cognitive development

Stages of Play – Relational

Plays with objects in simple ways. There is a lot of cause and effect play in this stage. A child may throw a toy for you to pick up. They will enjoy opening and shutting lids or doors.

Relational Play Examples

  • Using stacking cups. Putting them together and taking them apart.​
  • Playing repetitive games such as ‘Peek-a-Boo’ and ‘Pat-a-Cake’.​
  • Grabbing a bin and placing toys in the bin. 

Benefits of Relational Play

  • Physical development- Both fine and gross motor skills are required.​
  • Cognitive development – Children will engage in trial and error while playing. This teaches them to regulate their thinking.​
  • Language development – Simple words are included in play such as big, under, down

Stages of Play – Functional

  • Plays with objects for intended purpose.​
  • At this stage child will feed a doll or wear a toy as a hat. 
Image by Freepik

Functional Play Examples

  • Driving toy cars along the floor.​
  • Building blocks into a tower.​
  • Rolling, kicking, or throwing a ball.​
  • Pushing a doll in a stroller.​
  • Coloring with crayons.

Benefits of Functional Play

  • Understanding the world through practice. ​
  • Improves executive function skills. Executive function skills include the ability to  plan ahead and meet goals, display self-control, follow multiple-step directions even when interrupted, and stay focused despite distractions.

Stages of Play – Symbolic

  • Pretend play in which objects will be used for various actions. ​
  • Children will play with other children.

Symbolic Play Examples

  • Using a banana as a phone​
  • Using a box as a boat​
  • Transforming chairs and blankets into tents​
  • Making siren sounds while pretending to drive a police car​
  • Sipping tea from letter blocks

Benefits of Symbolic Play

  • Develops abstract thinking​
  • Life Skills​
  • Leadership Skills​
  • Social skills​
  • Self-Confidence

Should I Include Technology?

  • Devices do not teach how to interact with other people.​
  • Speech and language development can be delayed.​
  • Managing emotions may be difficult if screens are used for calming down.

Guidelines for Technology

  • Limit screen time for your child.​
  • Put your phone down when talking to your child. Make eye contact and listen attentively.​
  • Have rules about when and where to use screens. 

What Do You Need to Play?

  • An open mind.​
  • Willingness to follow your child.​
  • Flexibility

How to Play

  • Identify your child’s comfort zone. This is what they love to do when they are on their own. ​
  • Start play with sensory motor games. These are games that engage multiple senses.
  • Depending on your child’s age and ability this can include activities such as:  ​
    • tummy time​
    • crawling on the floor​
    •  jumping up and down​
    • the game ‘Round and Round the Garden’ ​
    • dancing to a song​
    • playing catch with objects of different textures​
    • using play dough​
    • blowing bubbles​
    • finger paint​
    • water play

How to Play

  • Build on your child’s interest and turn the play into different games.​
  • Games can include: ​
    • rolling a ball back and forth​
    • peek-a-boo​
    • song games (Wheels on the Bus, I’m a Little Teapot, The Incy Wincy Spider)​
    •  simple pretend play​
    • hide and seek
  • Interactions during play can be prolonged to keep the child engaged. ​
    • Example 1: Give a toy and ask for it back. Or try to take it back and let the child resist. ​
    • Example 2: Act confused when they want a toy so they will have to request through gestures, sound, or words.​
  • Incorporate waiting into play. Observe your child and allow them to make the next move and initiate interactions.
  • If your child is verbal, you can help to expand their language during play. ​
  • If they say “up”. You can add, “Let’s go up.” Or “Up mummy” Think about what your child would say in the situation. 



Thank you for reading this blog post on stages of play for children and strategies you can use at any stage. Let me know in the comments your favorite games to play with your children.

15 thoughts on “How to Play with Your Child: Stages of Play and Strategies”

  1. So many playing styles to choose from for parents with little ones. I love to start with exploratory play when I have kids of my own. Informative read indeed!

  2. Very informative. Ì especially like how you included benefits for each. My kids are teens now, but I remember the positive effect of some of these tips :).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *