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The Power of Play in Teaching Children with Autism

In order to help your child develop play skills, create many opportunities for them to explore freely in a safe and supported environment.

Play is important work in the lives of young children who are still exploring their social world. The skills acquired during play are essential in healthy childhood development – through play they learn social skills such as cooperation, communication, negotiation and the value of compromising. By playing, children also learn how to fit in their world.

However, for children with autism, play skills are usually delayed compared to their typically-developing peers. This article will outline the different phases of play that children progress through, allowing caregivers, educators and therapists to better assess where their child is and how to tailor more developmentally-appropriate interventions.

Parten’s Six Stages of Play

1. Unoccupied Play

This stage of play is the foundation for the other five stages of play. From the perspective of the observer, unoccupied play appears to be disorganised and scattered. Unoccupied play can also be understood as an exploratory style of playing, where the children practise manipulating objects and materials to determine causes and effects.

2. Solitary Play

Solitary play occurs when children understand certain functions of play items and entertain themselves with these toys without any social involvement. For example, children in solitary play may play-drive a car by themselves without acknowledging other children or adults in their environment. Solitary play is a normal part of early childhood development as it allows the children to freely explore and master other skills that would prepare them for the next levels of play.

3. Onlooker Play

You can tell that your child is engaging in onlooker play when they sit back and closely observe how other children are playing but do not join in – actively watching others is a part of their play style. Children who are engaging in onlooker play may not necessarily feel scared to engage with others. They are in fact learning about the social rules of playing with others by observing how others play. Remember that adults too, “people watch” when they are alone!

4. Parallel Play

Parallel play occurs when children play next to each other, but they are not really interacting together. To give an example, two children may be play-driving cars or playing with Play-Doh next to each other but their play does not overlap – they may not share materials or even be playing with the same materials. In this stage, the children are not explicitly engaging in any social exchange yet. They play in the same space and this prepares them for associative play and cooperative play.

5. Associative Play

This stage of play is important as it signifies an important change in the child’s play style. The children in this stage move to becoming more interested in their play partners instead of the play object. Generally, it is the first stage where active social interaction occurs as they are engaging in a mutual activity, though not working toward a common goal. For example, the play activity may be running around the playground or splashing in the pool together. Associative play lets children apply the skills they have acquired through onlooker and parallel play.

6. Cooperative Play

Cooperative play, as the name suggests, requires cooperation between play partners because in this style of playing, the children are working towards a common goal. More social interaction is demanded here as they have to agree on group goals and establish rules for play. Some examples of cooperative play are building a tower out of blocks together, completing a painting together, or finishing a puzzle together. Cooperation is an advanced skill that can be difficult even for typically-developing children because they need to learn to take turns, share materials, assert themselves and reach a compromise in these types of play scenarios.

In order to help your child develop these play skills, create many opportunities for them to explore freely in a safe and supported environment. Your child with autism may need more help in learning these skills, but remain patient – continue to provide them with a lot of encouragement, engagement and safe spaces to explore and play.

Written by: Jacelyn Lee


Parten, M. (1932). Social participation among pre-school children. The Journal Of Abnormal And Social Psychology, 27(3), 243-269. doi: 10.1037/h0074524

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