Occupational therapy practitioners study the theories of play extensively in their occupational therapy programs, and there is a reason why. Play is the occupation of a child.  Therapy models are based on play. It is the foundation for occupational therapy treatment. In order to truly understand and appreciate the value of play, it is important to understand the different theories of stages of play.  This article will review the more popular concepts among theory of play, to enhance your treatment methods and rationale. 

theories of play

Theories of play

What is the function of play?

Play is fun!  It is an important part of child development. Children’s play usually comes naturally, but for some, the concept of recreation needs to be enhanced, guided, or taught. This important occupation builds strength, balance, coordination, motor planning, cognitive development, and important social skills in young children.  Socially, play works on building confidence, problem resolution, turn taking, sharing, frustration tolerance, waiting, and about fifty other important skills.

OT practitioners know the basis for learning is through play age and stage by stage. There’s a reason why early childhood education is centered around play as a learning tool. It’s through pretend play, use of toys, and interaction with others that the work of the child is developed. 

The theories of play outlined below support play progression as it develops from individual exploration, to symbolic play, to parallel play, to group play. All of these different types of play are important to a child’s development, and foster mastery of cognitive skills, motor skills, social emotional learning, and more.

Let’s walk through each of the play theories outlined below and discover the role of play on children’s development. Each of these classical theories of play help to give us a bigger picture of the overall understanding of play. Not only that, but as occupational therapy providers working with children and families, we can grasp functional play based on psychoanalytic theories.

Occupational therapy practitioners can use an activity analysis to determine the components that are utilized in any given play activity.

Parten’s six stages of play

Some theories such as Piaget and Parten propose that children develop skills in steps.  Other theories look at overall play as a mechanism for learning, relying on culture and social skills.

  1. Unoccupied play. This stage is typically babies and toddlers.  They are relatively still, and their play is scattered. Children in this stage of play are typically exploring their environment, trying to make sense of their surroundings and their own environment.
  2. Solitary play. This type of play occurs when children entertain themselves without any other social involvement. Children in this stage might not notice others around them.  This worries adults, however this is a normal stage of development. Worry is warranted when a child does not move past this stage to engage socially with others.  Solitary play allows children to explore, master new skills, and practice before adding a difficult social element.
  3. Onlooker play.  Children in this stage learn by watching others play.  They are people watchers and this is a tool in their own learning. This is a natural stage of development where information is gathered about materials, social play, and their environment.  These are the children who often look as if they are not learning, then suddenly sing all of the songs once they get home. 
  4. Parallel play. Children in this stage play near each other, but not with each other. It can seem as if they are playing together, however they are often playing the same type of game, but not interacting socially.  Again this is a normal stage of development to be learned and moved through. Read about the development of parallel play in more detail.
  5. Associative play. This is the shift from playing near another person, to engaging with them.  Children start to become interested in the other players, and test the waters by engaging with them. This is not the final stage, as it is not organized and perfected yet. 
  6. Cooperative play. The last stage is about cooperative play between people. Interestingly, much of the play between young learners is anything BUT cooperative!  Part of the learning involves conflict, turn taking, sharing, disagreements, learning the rules, reading body language, and social cues.  During this stage, young learners may need guidance in understanding and navigating critical social skills.

These are stages of play development, however learners do not always move in the same direction as their peers, or stay in one stage.  A well developed child who is mastering cooperative play, may often find themselves being an onlooker at times, or engaging in parallel play. Adults do the same. This is expected, as long as learners are mastering all of the stages rather than becoming “stuck”.

Piaget’s Theory of Play

Jean Piaget developed his theory of play in 1936.  Over 75 years later therapy professionals still use his theory as the foundation for their treatment.   Mr. Piaget broke his theory of play into four components; the sensorimotor stage, the pre-operational stage, the concrete operational stage, and the formal operational stage. 

  1. The sensorimotor stage – ages 0-2 years. Children at this stage explore their world through their senses.  They use various senses to understand and make sense of their world.  Some children develop slower than others, still relying on this stage of development much later than two years.
  2. Pre-operational stage – ages 2-7 years. Children in this stage often engage in parallel play, near, but not with others.  They are very ego-centric at this stage, not understanding the feelings or behavior of others. Dolls, dress up clothes, blocks, fine motor manipulatives, constructive play, and books are engaging at this stage.
  3. Concrete operational stage – ages 7-11 years. At this stage children become problem solvers, asking many questions. They understand same/different, and that something can look different but be the same. Lego sets, model building, putting things together, and cooking are great activities to build this stage.
  4. Formal operational stage – ages 11 to adult.  People in this stage understand and engage in abstract thought.  They start to use strategy, thinking ahead, and multi-step projects. Chess, Sudoku, Rubiks cube, chapter books, and strategy games are popular at this stage.

Vygotsky Theory of Play

Lee Vygotsky developed his theory around the same time as Piaget.  He disagreed with Piaget’s theory.  Vygotsky believed development was only gained through language, community, and social development with other people. He theorized that babies are born with four necessary components of development: attention, sensation, perception, and memory.  

Vygotsky limited his scope of play to imaginative or pretend play as a method of learning. Pretend play is a way for learners to explore their world that is not directly in front of them, while developing critical language skills.

Adlerian Play Theory

“Adlerian theory is a holistic approach to psychology that emphasizes the importance of overcoming feelings of inferiority and gaining a sense of belonging in order to achieve success and happiness.”

Unlike the other theories described above, the Adlerian theory is a technique to work with individuals on development. There are four stages of the therapeutic process:

  • Engagement – the therapist (or another person) builds a relationship with the learner
  • Assessment – in this stage one tries to get information about their learner through an interview.  It might be taking family history, providing assessments, or talking through memories
  • Insight – this stage helps the learner gain insight about their thoughts and behavior. The therapist may offer interpretation, but it is important for the learner to draw their own conclusions
  • Reorientation – now that the learner has some insight into themselves, this last stage works on helping them develop new skills, habits, and behaviors

Play based therapy, or learning through play

While there are several theorists who believe in the power of play, some educators believe in learning and teaching through play.  Montessori and Froebel are two of these people.

Play-based learning supports the child as they explore different roles in pretend play, use imitation in learning new concepts, and incorporating multisensory learning as a tool for evolution of skill.

Montessori Theory

The Montessori theory is based on child-led play, in which the child is given opportunities to play.  The environment is adapted based on the level of the child.  The Montessori theory promotes sensory experiences as a tool for learning through play.

Children are grouped into age ranges of 3-4 years to promote learning from others.  While some children are conducive to this method of learning, critics suggest others need a more structured, direct approach. 

This article explores the Pros and Cons of Montessori Education.

Froebel’s Theory of Play

The basis of Froebel’s theory was that play is child-led.  Children are given “gifts” or tools to use such as blocks or crayons, to spark their play.  He developed many key principles for his theory:

  • Childhood should be valued as its own stage, not just a stepping stone to adulthood.
  • Play is vital to helping children learn how things work and about the world around them.
  • Children will all develop at different rates, and this should be respected.
  • Education should focus on what children can do, not what they cannot do.
  • Children’s emotional, mental and physical states are all of vital importance.
  • Children are heavily influenced by those around them, both adults and other children.

According to this site, Froebel’s play theory is made up of these principles:

  • Learning through play: Free play encourages the child to discover how things work, through purposeful activities which are active, hands-on and of interest to the individual child
  • Respect the individual’s developmental pace: Children learn at different paces.  Their development is more effective when allowed to learn at their own pace
  • Practitioners serve as a guide: Caregivers serve as a guide rather than a teacher, to help lead a child.  He believed children should make mistakes and learn through trial and error.
  • The classroom should be a prepared environment: Though free play is at the heart of Froebel’s play theory, the learning environment is carefully designed with the appropriate resources that are optimal for each child’s level of development.
  • The importance of movement: Froebel believed in movement. Outdoor play, running games, and large body movements are critical to learning

Other Theories of Play:

There are numerous methods and theories of play, beyond the ones highlighted above. A few of these include:

  • Susan Isaacs’ theory on play and the psychology of child development
  • Bronfenbrenner
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development
  • John Dewey’s theory on play being a catalyst to develop mentally and socially
  • Mildred Parten’s Social Behavior Theory of Play
  • Jerome Bruner’s Learning Theory in Education

The OT Toolbox has resources!

The Incredible Power of Play

Book – Exploring through Play

Beach Play for Kids

Play with Household Items

Floor Play for Babies

After reading through these, ask yourself, which theories do I follow?  My opinion of certain methods has changed over the years, as I have realized one size definitely does not fit all.  All learners grow at different rates and levels.  The importance is to understand the function of play, recognize if your learner is “stuck,” and promote growth.  

Victoria Wood

Victoria Wood, OTR/L has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.

theories of play