The play age in child development is one way to look at preferences and styles of play based on a child’s development. For occupational therapy practitioners, play is the primary tool that is used to support goal achievement. We know that the play is the work of the child and it’s through play that occupational therapy play goals are achieved. Functional play is just one component of each play age and stage.
We have many play resources here on the website, but we wanted to put together a resource on play ages for children and suggestions of toys and activities for each play age.
Play Age and Stage
At each play age, children will develop skills in specific and refined areas. Play changes by age as the young child grows and develops skills in each of these areas:
- fine motor skills (Read here about building fine motor skills through play)
- gross motor skills
- cognitive skills
- communication skills
- social emotional learning
- self-regulation skills
- And importantly, play-based learning
We cover these concepts in our blog post on the power of play. It’s through play that children develop these skills, but also play is a vehicle for achieving developmental milestones.
We can see that the different stages of play support each area listed above, and it’s a deliberate process fueled by meaningful play activities.
The best thing of all, is that play is a fun way to learn these skills!
Stages of Play AGE
Early childhood is a wealth of development. It’s during the first years that we see deliberate progress through the stages of play ages. These stages include:
- Unoccupied play (Birth – 3 Months)
- Solitary Play (Birth – 2 years)
- Spectator/Onlooker Behavior (2 Years)
- Parallel Play (2+ Years)
- Associate Play (3-4 Years)
- Cooperative Play (4+ Years)
Child development begins in the womb. As that baby develops and grows in utero, they are already stretching and moving, practicing reach and grasp, and stretching against the walls of their mother’s uterus. That push and pull that you felt as an expecting mom was your little one gaining strength and sensory input!
That motor development continues after birth, and that’s when the fun begins in play.
Baby Play Age
When we look at play ages, it can be helpful to break development during the first year down into stages. We cover more information on this play age in our resource on baby play.
- Primitive Stage- Birth to 3 months
- Transitional Stage- 4-9 months
- Mature Stage- 10-12 months
We’ll call the first stage the Primitive Stage of play age. This is the time right after birth and lasts up to around the three month mark. During this stage we’ll see the baby interact visually with the world around them. They watch, listen, and make basic movements.
The Transitional Stage of play age is that period of time around 4 months to 9 moths of age. We’ll see greater development of things like grasp and controlled movements, effort, interaction with the world around them, and intentional movements.
The Mature Stage of the play age occurs around 10 to 12 months. During this period, baby freely moves their body to manipulate items in their world. They improve and refine mobility, grasp, and communication. Each stage has their hallmark milestones. We’re going to go over those milestones in greater detail. But first, let’s talk about something important.
It’s so important to remember that each child is different. Each child reaches their developmental milestones at their own rate.
What is a milestone? A “milestone” is basically a checkpoint for physical or behavioral development. These are basic levels that a child should achieve as they grow. The milestones and the play age ranges that we’re talking about here (and what you see on Google!) is so vastly approximate.
One child may reach for and shake a rattle at 2 months and another child does the same at 5 months. The important thing to remember is that the child is progressing through the milestones. If you have concerns for your little one, speak up!
Ask your child’s pediatrician to make sure you’re on the right track. Remember that the information presented here is informational and educational, but if you suspect a real issue, you should reach out to the pediatrician.
Keep in mind that some kids skip milestones (like crawling), and there can be some implications down the road. Another consideration is that when looking at milestones, you should adjust for prematurity. A baby that is born weeks early has some development to gain that may have been achieved in utero. Again, if you have any questions or concerns, reach out to a physician to be sure your little one is on track.
Stage 1- The Primitive Stage
Ok, let’s talk specifics. During the Primitive Stage (0-3 months), you’ll see so many physical and sensory milestones that impact movement, communication, and feeding. During the first three months, you will see changes such as:
- Following a person with their eyes
- Lifting their head
- Pushing up to their arms while lying in tummy time
- Holding the head up while laying on their belly
- Opening their fist into stretched fingers
- Bringing hands to the mouth
- Reaching for toys
- Turns toward sounds or voices
- Makes eye contact
- Moving legs and arms
What a difference three months makes, right? In the time that you’ve brought that baby home, they are moving and interacting with their world around them. They respond to their environment and are taking it all in! From the first weeks when baby doesn’t focus their eyes on anything, they strengthen eye movements and focus to visually track a toy or person by the end of the three months of age. During this stage, it’s important to allow that little one to move, stretch, kick, and strengthen their core, neck, arms, and legs, and eye muscles.
Play in Stage 1 (0-3 months)
Remember, in this stage, your newborn is getting their first take of the world. Play during this range centers on connecting and making your child feel safe. In the next few slides, you’ll find some powerful play activities that build the skills your baby will need down the road as they prepare for higher-level tasks like reading, writing, riding a bike, and other “big kid” tasks!
Songs and Nursery Rhymes- For our littlest newborns, this is a wonderful first play activity. Singing softly or reciting nursery rhymes to infants gets your little one used to the sound of your voice. Make eye contact up close as you recite rhymes and songs. Baby’s vision is capable of focusing on objects at about 8 inches from their face. Using exaggerated mouth movements and wide eyes when you speak to your little one provides a high-contrast point that they can focus on. Those beautiful baby eyes won’t start to work together for a few months. In fact, for the first 2 months, baby’s eyes may appear crossed or un coordinated. That’s ok and normal!
Follow the noise- Use a rattle, squeaky toy, or other toy that makes noise as you move the toy in front of your little one’s field of vision. You want your baby to visually track the noise and follow the toy with their eyes. While baby won’t be able to really follow moving objects with their eyes until about three months of age, this activity boosts so many areas and creates the building blocks of auditory processing and visual processing. Development of these areas are essential to learning, communication, and eye-hand coordination. This activity can be accomplished at various stages, and in various positions. Baby can be swaddled up and laying on their back while following the toy with their eyes. Try it when baby is in tummy time. Soon, you will see reaching for that fun toy. It’s a great way to encourage reach, grasp, and even gross motor skills like lifting the head and neck while in tummy time, and rolling.
Tummy Time Back Rub- Tummy Time can be hard for babies! That little cry is so sad and makes you want to pick your little one up and snuggle them until they feel safe. But, remember the benefits of tummy time and help them to feel safe and comforted on their belly. Get down on the floor with your little one and lightly rub their back while you sing, speak, or hum. Put your face right next to your little one so they feel the warmth of your body. Make eye contact and engage with that sweet nugget!
Chest to chest- We talked before about how tummy time doesn’t need to happen on the floor. Place baby on your chest as you lean back on a couch. Your baby’s face will be close to yours and at a great position to speak softly. Depth perception of the eyes doesn’t develop until about 5 months of age, so until then, your little one is building the eye strength to better see the world. This positioning is helpful to help your little one build upper body strength.
Blanket time- A colorful play blanket is a great space to stretch, kick, and move those arms and legs. Positioning toys around baby encourages them to engage while strengthening their core, neck, arms, legs, and eye muscles. Position toys in a semi-circle around baby and get down on the floor to get in on the play action. This is a great way to build the skills needed for rolling and manipulating objects.
Leg Kick- While baby is on the floor on their back or belly, provide some bicycle action to their legs. You can slowly “bike” their legs to get them moving and then tap the bottoms of their feet. This tactile input “wakes up” the feet and can get them kicking and moving. Place a toy or object that makes noise at their feet and they will see and hear a response to moving their legs.
Stage 2- The Transitional Stage
During the Transitional Stage (4-9 months) of the play age, there is so much happening! Purposeful movement drives development and development occurs through purposeful movement. This is a fun series of months. You’ll see motor, sensory, and communication milestones:
- Rolls from back to belly and belly to back
- Stands with support, putting weight through legs
- Holds the head and neck steady in sitting
- Moves from supported sitting to independent sitting
- Bears weight through hands in crawling position
- Reaches for toys while lying in the belly
- Moves toys from one hand to the other
- Uses both hands to manipulate and explore toys
- Reacts to sudden sounds
- Listen and responds to sounds or voices
- Begins to babble
- Shows an interest in foods
- Imitates others in play
- Focuses on near and far objects
- Investigates textures, size, shapes, and details of objects
During the transitional stage, the baby is really gaining control of their body. They use purposeful movement, influenced by toys and people around them in order to explore. Baby will move from tummy time with weight through their arms to pushing up on their arms. They will begin to lift their belly off the floor to all fours. They will move from supported sitting to unsupported sitting with reaching for toys. You’ll see that little bundle move from tummy time to rolling, crawling, and reaching. Let them move, kick, and stretch! We’ll cover how and why these skills are so important in just a bit!
Play in Stage 2 (4-9 months)
This is a fun age! Purposeful movement occurs and you will see baby learning so much. Here are some play ideas that boost the skills babies need to move, manipulate toys, feed themselves, and get from place to place:
Foot Rattles- There are socks out there that have built-in noise makers. These little foot rattles encourage baby to move and shake those legs. While lying on their back, they can see how intentional movement works.
Peek-a-Boo- This is an age-old favorite…and there’s a good reason why we love this classic game! When mom or dad hides their face and then suddenly takes their hands away, baby is learning some valuable skills. They learn that objects don’t go away just because they can’t see them. Object permanence, cause and effect, and problem solving begin at this young age, and while it can take a while to master, it’s an essential skill down the road! Try playing peek-a-book with faces, objects and a blanket, and by gently swiping a blanket over baby. (Always use super close supervision with this activity!)
Crinkly Soft Toys- One of my favorite ways to develop those early fine motor skills is with a simple crinkly soft blanket. You know the kind…it’s soft material on the outside, but crinkly fabric sewn into the middle. So, when baby squeezes and grabs the soft toy, they hear a crinkly noise. The best kind are small fabric swatches because they are light enough for baby to manipulate and pick up. The OT in me loves to see that little grip grab and pull the material. You can see those motor skills develop right in front of your eyes! Use the crinkly toy in tummy time to encourage reaching and rolling, or while laying on the floor as baby brings both hands together and gives the toy a taste. They can work both hands together in a coordinated manner with feedback from the mouth. It’s a great toy for building cause and effect, too!
Mirror Play- Find a baby-safe mirror and use it in tummy time. Place a few baby items on the mirror and they can begin to push up onto their arms by putting weight through their shoulders and upper body. Another way to use a baby safe mirror is to place it in front of baby while they are in supported sitting. Baby will begin to babble and “talk” to the baby they see in the mirror.
Hula-Hoop Reach- Your little one is still building those motor skills and someday down the road they will be doing big kid things! For now, use a hula hoop to attach rattles and baby toys in a circle around them as they are in tummy time in the center. The circular positioning of toys encourages reach (and eye-hand coordination), visual scanning, rolling, and pivoting on the upper body as they move and stretch for different toys.
Sitting Games- Place pillows around your little one to create a soft crash mat. As baby gains the skills to sit up with balance, they can reach for toys around them. Offer a basket of washcloths, a bowl of nesting toys, hand-sized balls (ones that can’t be placed into the mouth), or other novel items. This is a great opportunity to practice reaching, placing objects into containers, and getting stronger at balance!
Living Room Obstacle Course- Along the same lines as the previous activity, use living room pillows and couch cushions to create obstacles on the floor. This is a great way to encourage movement in a variety of patterns and gain skills in crawling. As baby grows, they will become more confident in their movement and this is great to see! Be sure to stay close by and ensure the space is babyproofed!
Bubbles- Blowing bubbles with baby is a wonderful way to encourage visual tracking, eye-hand coordination, core strength, sitting balance, neck control, and even fine motor skills! Encourage your little one to watch the bubbles as they float away and visual processing skills develop. Ask them to get the bubble and they can work on controlled reach and grasp. Bubbles are a great activity throughout the toddle years too as baby learns to gain control in standing and walking. Grab a container of bubbles and have fun!
Roll a Ball- A partially blown up beach ball is a wonderful tool for helping your little one gain balance and strength in sitting. The ball when not blown up entirely provides a great opportunity for grasp. Just be sure to keep a close watch on your little ball player. This activity should only be done under very close supervision and always trust your gut. You know that the ball is going straight to the mouth once your little one has a hold of it, so stay close by. Rolling a beach ball toward baby is wonderful for developing visual processing skills, eye-hand coordination, grasp and release, strengthening, and more. Adding more air to the ball makes it harder to grasp and harder to catch as the ball will roll more quickly and smoothly. Older kiddos can use that ball to kick, throw, and even pat-pat-pat!
Box of Toys- Have an Amazon delivery box or a shoebox sitting around? It’s a novel toy for your little one! Fill it with baby-safe objects or toys and get ready to have fun. Pulling items out and dropping them back in teaches baby so much about weight, grasp, eye-hand coordination, and even gravity. They will love to see how things fall and how they hit off other toys. Dumping a box of toys is fun of its own and is another experiment of it’s own. Baby, as they start to move and crawl can push or pull a box and gain the feedback of pushing the object along the floor. Babies that are standing at a coffee table or couch can explore and drop items into the box while they learn to hold on the safety of the couch and use one arm to hold an object. SO much development can happen with a simple cardboard box!
Put in and Take Out- Take that box play even further by using a smaller opening. An empty tissue box is another awesome tool for building skills in fine motor work, eye-hand coordination, and visual processing skills. By placing items in a container, little ones can work on things likd visual discrimination and visual memory, all through play and not aware that those basic skills will carryover far into their educational years as they learn to read, write, and complete math. Amazing, right??!
Row, Row, Row Your Boat- Setting baby down on your lap facing you is a great way to connect through play. You remember Row Row Row Your Boat from your childhood right? Hold on to your little one’s hands or upper body (depending ontheir ability and age) and gently row back and forth as you sing: Row row row your boat, Gently down the Stream, Merrily, merrily, merrily merrily, Life is but a dream! This is a great way to challenge movement, balance, and visual skills as baby makes eye contact with you in a fun way!
Baby-Safe Finger Paint- During the middle of the first year, baby begins his or her journey with food. About 9 months is a great time to encourage sensory play using baby safe paint. All it takes is a couple of pureed foods such as sweet potatoes, carrots, or prunes. Allow baby to touch, manipulate, and smear that paint on a high chair surface or even paper. Moving the texture in their hands provides a tactile sensory challenge, and has its fine motor benefits, too. Baby will be able to isolate their pointer finger to point and smear, will be able to separate the thumb side of the hand from the stability side of the hand (SO important in higher level fine motor tasks!), and will develop the arches of the hand which is helpful in more refined fine motor activities. A little water play at the end of this activity is great for cleaning up AND has sensory benefits of its own!
Water Play- Speaking of water play, there are so many ways to engage, explore, and build skills using water play. A small dish and some crushed ice is a great way to encourage grasp wth sensory benefits. A gallon sized baggie filled with colored water and some water beads can be sealed up with duct tape and used as a floor tummy time activity. A scoop and some large balls can be used to introduce scooping and pouring. The sky is the limit when it comes to baby safe water play. Just be sure to keep a close eye on your little one and trust your gut when it comes to setting up play activities.
Stage 3- Mature Stage (10-12 months)
The next phase is a big one! During the tail end of the first year, you see big strides in free movement. You see stronger eye-hand coordination, and intentional movement. You see refined fine motor skills, improved mobility, and a stronger baby. Here are more specifics about this stage:
- Pulls up to stand at furniture
- Takes first steps holding onto furniture to “cruise”
- Moves in various positions from laying to sitting, sitting to pulling up to stand, etc.
- Drops toys into containers and grabs them to manipulate
- Uses a pincer grasp (holds small items like cereal between the pads of the thumb and pointer finger)
- Explores toys with mouth, hands, and visually
- Says first words
- Feeds self with finger foods
- Takes first steps without support
During this stage of development, babies are moving and grooving! They are building on the skills they’ve achieved and refining those motor skills. Babies are using what they’ve got in the way of grasp, reach, and gross movement to really develop their vestibular sense. By moving in different planes to crawl, swing, turn, and roll, there is movement of the fluid in the inner ear which stimulates the vestibular sense. The vestibular sense allows us to know where our body is in space. With the vestibular sense, we are able to sit without falling over, move from one point to another safely, and track objects with our eyes (which is needed in reading and writing). Limiting movement limits growth and learning in all of these ways.
Play in Stage 3 (10-12 months)
During the tail end of the first year, gains in coordination and intentional movement drives play. You’ll see more engagement and communication during play and a stronger baby. Play at this stage is fun!
Tunnels- Set ups a floor obstacle course like we talked about a few slides ago, but add some more challenging experiences. Use a baby tunnel or a large cardboard box. What a fun space to add baby toys, bins, baskets, and soft blankets for crawling over and playing with!
Kitchen Play- At this stage, baby will be much sturdier in their sitting. Set ups a scattering of kitchen bowls and wooden spoons or scoops. They can bang, stack, and drop to see how items work and move. Recycled items such as egg cartons, cereal boxes, and plastic container are fun to explore too. Be sure to make the space baby safe. This is a great way to engage your little one while cooking and preparing meals.
Sensory Play- This stage is fun because as the fine motor skills develop, you will see more refined use of the hands from a raking grasp” where all of the fingers rake items in order to pick them up in the palm of the hand into a “pincer grasp” where the pointer finger and the thumb are able to pick up a small item. Encourage sensory play by providing cooked spaghetti cut up into small lengths. Scatter the cooked spaghetti on a black placemat or tray. The high visual contrast and interesting sensory experience will engage your little one and build fine motor skills they will need down the road.
Sensory play can be modified for every play age!
Fine Motor Play- Around 10 months, you will see more refined fine motor skills as baby uses their pointer finger and thumb to pick up small items with the pincer grasp we just talked about in our last slide. Suddenly, you will notice every speck of dirt and fuzz ball on the carpet…and so will your little one! Encourage those fine motor skills by providing baby cereal and a container for them to drop pieces into.
Fine motor skills can be modified for every play stage, too!
Stacking Activities- Use stacking cups, blocks, or small boxes (empty tissue boxes work great!) to stack and knock over! Baby will begin to gain more refined motor skills and the excitement of knocking those towers over again and again will not end!
Rolling Toys- Use balls of various sizes, toy cars, and even recycled paper towl tubes to explore how things move and roll. Take the excitement level up a notch by adding a ramp usng a large cardboard piece to make a ramp. Watching items as they roll down and grabbing them to push them down all over aagain is big fun! It’s a great way to encourage fine and gross motor skills, visual motor skills, eye-hand coordination, and balance.
Do It All Over Again- The best thing about baby’s first year is that there is SO much development and change. Each stage and month is an opportunity to learn, grow, and refine skills. Use some of the earlier play ideas we talked about and bring them back out at later months. That baby-safe painting activity? Use a big sheet of paper and colored pudding or jelly to paint outside by crawling on all fours. Take water play up a notch by setting up a water table (an under-the-bed storage bin works great for this!). Make an obstacle course that involves imagination play and drawing on cardboard with crayons. The opportunities are endless…and it’s all fun!
Let’s continue with play by age for older ages, including the toddler, preschool, elementary, middle school children, and even high school teenagers (and beyond! Play doesn’t end for adults!
Below are some expected play skills based on age ranges with distinct stages.
Toddler Age Play
For 1 and 2-year olds, toddler play is a time of learning and development. This is where we see social play come in as well as lots of movements in play. Independent play moves toward play with peers and siblings. In this stage, playtime is focused on pretend and copying others.
Some things about the toddler play age:
- Toddler play is active with lot of movements
- Toys likeblocks andcarryingplay are fun forbuilding coordination
- Prefers certain toys
- Imitation play is prevelent
- Likes repetitice actions
- Pretend play is developing and seen in play scenes with toys and with own body
- Enjoys puzzles, play dough, sand, etc.
- Dance and movement play
- Loves to throw and jump as movement is discovered and advanced
- Plays with dolls, stuffed animals
- Enjoys push and pull toys
- Scribbles with crayon
Play during the ages of 2-3 Years is a time of much development. These preschool activities will support children in this age.
Kid play has some ideas to support this age.
Elementary School Play Age
For children aged 4-5 Years and older preschool children, there is much learning through body movement and make-believe play. Formal board games are popular with this age as they are beginning to develop executive functioning skills. The school-aged child further progresses as they become involved with pretend and ideas of their peers.
During the 5-6 Years range, children love competitive games, fantasy play, creating art with paint or markers, and continued pretend play with kitchen sets, dolls, and other pretend toys.
Play themes drive pretending and interests at each of the different ages.
Play by Age Success Tips
There are a few primary elements when it comes to interacting with children through play ages. These are strategies to guide play toward a connection, establishing relationships, and establishing rapport.
- DO: Meet the level of the child- Meeting the child at their level is twofold. One aspect of connecting with a child involves physically getting down at the child’s level to meet them at their physical level. The other aspect is meeting the child at their emotional and developmental level. Adults who are playing with a small child can act and communicate at the same age and level of the child to encourage participation. They can talk in the way the child speaks (nonverbal, single words or phrases, etc.) in order to interact through games, imagination, or creative play.
- DO: Set up a baby-safe space. As your child grows, play changes too.
- DO: Be a balanced play partner. Interactions with a child should be a reciprocal event where there is turn-taking in communication and action. Waiting for a child to respond can be effective in meaningful communication. Initiating play can begin by doing one thing (imagination, initial moves in a game, or a single request/direction and then acting reciprocally by taking turns with actions, sounds, and words. Play offers a sense of community, team work, creativity, language, and problem solving.
- DO: Enjoy the play- Interacting with kids is fun! Animated interactions and flexible play make play situations a relaxed time where the child can communicate. As a child plays, show affection, animation, and genuine gratitude for the chance to play with the individual. Limit personal distractions such as phones and have fun!
- DON’T: Worry too much! Don’t obsess over meeting certain levels or hitting those milestones by exact dates. Watch for a flow of development in your little one and if you have concerns about your little one reaching certain milestones, bring it up to their pediatrician.
- DON’T: Forget about moderation. When it comes to swings, carseats, rockers, slings, etc…all of these positioners are fine…in moderation. If baby is in the carseat for a while, then don’t get him/her out and into the swing. Allow time to move, stretch, reach, and roll on the floor.
- DON’T: Fall into the “screens” trap. So often, parents hand their phone or tablet screen off to their little one. There are educational apps and videos on there, right? Well, yes…but remember the moderation tip we just talked about. When little nugget is looking at a screen, they miss the learning opportunities happening all around them
Finally, check out these recommendations for play age and stages at each level of development:
Baby Play Ideas for babies and toddlers
Toddler Play Ideas for kids aged 2-4
School-Aged play ideas for educational learning