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Stages of Play & Improving Recess For Our Students

Fun Times!

Hey everyone,

Continuing our "Month of Play" theme here at the OT School House, I wanted to use today's post to run through the importance of play and Mildred Parten's 6 stages of play to help refresh what OTs should be looking for in a student's ability to participate at recess and other times of play.

In the third version of the Occupational Therapy Practice Framework (2017), the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) used Parham & Fazio's definition of play as “Any spontaneous or organized activity that provides enjoyment, entertainment, amusement, or diversion” (1997).And over the years there have been many articles which document the importance of recess time and the play exhibited during this time.

Furthermore, AOTA broke down play into "Play Exploration" - the planning and structure of play, and "Play Participation" - having the ability to access the physical environment.

So as we discuss the stages of play, we will be looking at the students' ability to engage in play exploration to participate meaningfully at recess.

Parten's 6 Stages of Play

1. Unoccupied Play

Seemingly unorganized to an observer, unoccupied play is typically seen in infants and is a way for infants to understand the world around them. Waving their hands in front of their face, randomly clapping their hands, shaking anything that they can get their hands on; these are all forms of unoccupied play and allow for the child to learn about their environment.

2. Solitary Play

The next step up from unoccupied play, solitary play is characterized by meaningful play in isolation. Where in unoccupied play the infant shook a rattle randomly, now the child is shaking the rattle with reason, perhaps to a beat. The key component here is that the child is focusing on an activity for a length of time rather than jumping from one activity to another and so on. Solitary play is typically seen in children ages 2-3 years.

3. Onlooker Behavior

This phase in play is seen in younger children as well as they look toward their peers and at adults to see how they play. It may be interpreted as being shy, but this onlooker behavior is integral to learning. I like to think of this step as a data collection period for children. They intently observe to learn about concepts like gravity and social cues.

4. Parallel Play

Frequently seen at about the same time as onlooker behavior, parallel play is the act of doing the same play activity as a peer, but not with the peer. For example, two children playing with their own set of Legos a few feet apart from each other, but not really interacting with each other. You may see some onlooker behaviors and imitation, but little to no social interaction.

5. Associative Play

This is the beginning of socialization in play. Typically beginning to develop slightly before a child's fourth birthday, many kindergarteners enter school at this stage. Children in this stage are learning the foundations of interacting with peers. They are playing with each other and commenting on each others tower, but are not yet working together to build something or taking turns. You often have a lot of tattling at this stage because some children are okay with sharing, and others are not.

6. Cooperative Play

By the end of kindergarten, most students should have reached cooperative play where they can have positive interactions with peers and play by rules agreed on by the peers (not necessarily adult provided rules...). It is through cooperative play that children learn to problem solve with peers and to "give and take" in situations where there is not necessarily a winner or loser.

Relating the Stages Back to School Function

Alright, so those are the most popular stages of play. While some scholars have expanded on this list on to more advanced stages of play, I feel that if a child has reached the cooperative play, they have reached a level that is functional within schools. Thus, I tend to not look beyond that during my assessments. But yes, I do assess a students level of play during my assessments if there are any social or behavioral concerns- especially if I am assessing a younger student.

So what do I do? I typically will observe a full recess session and talk briefly with the teacher(s) or aide(s) who monitor recess. I often find that if an aide knows exactly the kid I'm looking for, that student is either frequently in trouble or frequently isolated from their peers for one reason or another. Both are problematic and should be looked at more thoroughly.

Many times the reason or reasons for difficulties at recess can be seen by a trained eye during observations. Is the student engaging in parallel play when his/her peers are actively participating in cooperative play? Does the student have the bilateral skills required to climb a ladder or the motor planning abilities to time out when to jump the rope?

A few times, I have seen a student get in trouble for pushing or shoving. I know from working with them that they are receiving speech services because they have difficulties expressing themselves. I ask more about the situation and observe the student and I come to find that this student does engage in this behavior, but it is because they do not know how to appropriately ask/tell a peer to move out of the way. This is a form of communication and is a manifestation of their disability. They should not have recess taken away. With the help of the OT and Speech provider, this situation should be used as a learning experience for the student.

What Works?

Recess is the best time of the day for so many students and rightly so. I think we owe it to them to make sure they all get to participate and enjoy it. So what can we do as OTs?

Just like we talk to teachers about how to grip a pencil, we should be working with the recess supervisors about how to facilitate play among our students with disabilities.

Some students may just need a structured and specific play task where there is one person leading the game rather than 10 students all making up the rules.

A few years ago I working with a student on the Autism Spectrum and we put in place a recess jar. Every day before recess he would pull out a piece of paper that had a game on it and then give him the materials needed to play (ball, jump rope, pool noodle, etc.). Not only did this give him an idea of what to do on the playground, but it also gained interest in that game from other peers. It didn't work out every day, but it did increase overall social play interactions.

Alright, so that about wraps things up. I just want to encourage you to get out on the playground and observe your students out there for a bit. You are almost guaranteed to learn something new about your students and they may even surprise you.

Also, I recommend checking out the resources below. All can be accessed with an NBCOT account.

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Hope you are having a great week!

Until next time,



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