By: Katrina Wasserman MA, CCC-SLP

Play may seem like it’s all fun and games, but play is an integral part of a child’s development. Through play, children learn about their world. Play provides a fun and safe environment to practice their language skills, critical thinking, and social skills.  While a 16-month-old is happily stacking brightly colored rings on the rug, he or she is learning about sizes for example, through trial and error.

As a child grows, their play becomes more complex.  A four-year-old may use those same brightly colored rings as a tunnel for their cars, a bracelet while playing dress-up, or as food while pretending to cook. As with all areas of development, play also has specifically defined stages.

The Westby Play Scale

Carol E. Westby created the Westby Play Scale in 1980 to define the ten stages in the development of symbolic play abilities and how it relates to language concepts and structures. Below are some play milestones for each age as defined by the Westby Play Scale:

9 to 12 months

The child now realizes that an object exists even when it is hidden. This is known as “object permanence.” The child now has the ability to appropriately play with some toys instead of just mouthing or banging them. The child will walk or crawl to get what he or she wants and pull string toys.

13 to 17 months

At this stage, a child will purposefully explore toys and discover how they work through trial and error. If the child is unable to figure out how a toy works, he or she will hand the toy to an adult.

17 to 19 months

Children in this stage use common objects and toys appropriately.  They engage in “autosymbolic play” in which a child pretends to go to sleep, eat from a spoon, or drink from a cup. They also develop “tool-use” in which they may use a stick to help get an out of reach toy.

19 to 22 months

Pretend play is developing in this stage. A child may perform pretend activities with more than one person or object, play with dolls, and start combining two toys in play. You may now see the child “pouring” from a pot into a cup while playing in their kitchen.

24 months

The child is busy engaging in play that represents daily experiences such as playing “house”. Play events are short and have self-limited sequences like putting food in a pan, stirring, and then eating the food. Block play consists of stacking and knocking them down. Many children at this stage love sand and water play which usually consists of filling, pouring, and dumping.

2.5 years old

Pretend play at this stage represents less frequently experienced events, like playing “doctor”, “teacher,” or shopping in a store, and employs realistic props.

3 years old

By this age, the child extends previous stages of pretend activities but also incorporates sequenced events that are not isolated. For example, a child mixes a cake, bakes it, serves it, and then washes the dishes. The child may now act out an event and create new outcomes. At this age, children are in the associative play stage. This is when all children may be doing the same or similar activities, but are not working together. For example, in school, the children may all be playing in the blocks center, but are working on their own structures.

3 to 3.5 years old

The child now carries out pretend play activities with a dollhouse and other toys like a firehouse, plane, etc. Use of blocks and the sandbox are now for imaginative play. Blocks may be used as fences for animals. Toys may now represent a completely different toy or object.

3.5 to 4 years old

At this age, children begin to problem solve events not experienced (e.g., “What would happen if…”). They are also using dolls and puppets to act out scenes. While playing with blocks, 3-D structures are created that are reproductions of specific structures they have previously seen.

5 years old

At this stage, children plan a sequence of pretend events. They organize which objects are needed along with other children’s roles in the play schema. Children are able to coordinate more than one event occurring at a time and play is highly imaginative. The child does not need realistic props as they will use other items symbolically in play. There is full cooperative play between children and puppets, and other toys may be participants during pretend play. Cooperative play means that children are playing together, working towards the same goal.

Defining stages of play allows speech-language pathologists to assess specific play skills and associated language skills. Parents can also use these milestones as a framework to play with their children at home. Playing with a child is a great bonding and teaching experience. Keep in mind to use these norms above as a general guideline, as there is a wide range of development for children.