Play Theories and Play Patterns – OT / NBCOT® Exam Study Guide

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Study Guide

  • Play is considered to be the child’s most important occupation.
  • It allows the child to explore and interact with others, objects and the environment.
  • Play promotes growth and development.
  • Play allows the child to experience sensory, motor, cognitive, social skills within their culture.
  • Other contexts that play take place in include physical and social context.

Play Themes

  • Play is fun.
  • Play can be free from rules.
  • Play involves free choice and is intrinsically motivating.
  • Play involves participation but can be sedentary.
  • Play is focused on the process rather than any outcome.

Many types of play begin at birth.

Functional play

  • Cause and effect toys

Social play

  • Socialist Mildred Parten
  • Begins early as the infant interacts with their parents.

Gross and fine motor play

  • Also known as physical play.

Cognitive play

  • Acting on an object and understanding how it works.

Sensory play

  • Taking in the senses.
  • Also known as sensory organization or regulatory play.


  • Known for stages of cognitive development.
  • Helped organize and understand play into developmental stages.
  • Some of the patterns of play coincide with these developmental stages.

Birth to 1 year

Exploratory Play

  • Infant explores the world around them.

Sensorimotor Play

  • Think sensory.
  • Infant plays by exploring sights, sounds, touch, and being held.
  • Similar to sensory play (or sensory regulatory play).

1-2 years old

Relational Play

  • Using an object for what is used for, or its relationship.
  • Example: giving a teddy bear something to drink.
  • To distinguish from functional play, which is more cause-effect, relational play is more abstract.

Pretend / Symbolic play

  • Pretend play is a form of symbolic play.
  • Begins to use objects or other things for their imagination.
  • Role-playing is another form of pretend or symbolic play, e.g., tea parties or dress-up.

2-3 years

  • Primarily symbolic or imaginary
  • Continue to participate in imaginary play

Constructive play

  • Build and “construct” things
  • Example: legos

Rough and tumble play

  • Play-fighting
  • Wrestling
  • Does not have rules.

3-5 years

  • Begins games with simple rules.
  • Examples: checkers, Candyland.

5-7 years

  • Begins to participate more in sports and social activities.

7+ years

  • Begins to further develop their interests in play.

Social Play Stages

Another way to categorize play is to think about socialization and how it changes with age. Social play patterns build on each other and prepare for the next stage, even if it does not seem like the child may be doing much in terms of playing.


Unoccupied play

  • Occurs in infants from birth to three months.
  • Example: infant’s random movements such as with their arms and legs.

2 years

Solitary play (Independent play)

  • Child plays alone.
  • Child learns to entertain themself.

2.5 years

Onlooker play

  • Seeing what others are doing around them.
  • Do not actively participate in the action.
  • Attention is focused on the play activity.

3 years

Parallel Play

  • Children play comfortably next to each other.
  • May share materials and converse.

Associative Play

  • Similar to parallel play.
  • Child still play separately from another.
  • Involved with what each other are doing.
  • Example: building their own sandcastles, but they may be talking and engaging (associating) with each other.
  • No cooperation.

4 years

Cooperative (Social Play)

  • Children truly start playing with each other.
  • Requires social interaction and cooperation.
  • May include agreed-upon roles and rules.
  • Examples: puzzles, board games.

5 years

  • Cooperative or social play continues.
  • Sports and recreational activities.

7 years+

  • Continues cooperative play as they develop their interests.