Paediatric Psychology Team Toolkit - Play and Social Interaction

The aim of our toolkit is to provide advice, activities and general resources to help families to manage some every day challenges and difficulties around play and social interaction.  As a parent, you are the best person in your child's life to support these difficulties, however, working with all key people in your child's life to ensure consistency is paramount and essential for success.


Play helps children develop gross and fine motor skill, language and communication skills, thinking and problem solving skills as well as social skills.  

As parents, most of us are naturally motivated to play and interact with our children. It can come as a surprise therefore if a child isn’t responsive to these attempts, and we may not know what to try next. For many autistic children, play may be different and more difficult to achieve, and sometimes our good intentions to engage may sometimes not be successful.  However, with understanding and support it should be possible to progress their play, including their ‘social play’, and for this to support other areas of their development too.

As a starting point, it’s helpful to have an understanding of the different stages play goes through in typical development. The following charts show, firstly the recognised stages of play, in the order that they usually occur in typical development, then the stages of social play:

By looking at these charts it can be seen that many autistic children do show some of these types of play, but this is often different to their typically developing peers. 

First of all, become familiar with your child’s developmental level around play. This is key to playing with them and developing their play! 

Stages of play

Sensorimotor Play

The baby or child is primarily occupied with the way things taste, look, sound, feel, smell, etc. For example, he or she not only shakes a rattle but sucks it; feels its texture; examines the way it looks; smells it and plays with other items in a similar way.

Organising Play

The baby or child is concerned with organising the play items but hasn’t acquired an understanding of their purpose. So, for example, they may line up their toy cars but not actually drive them around.

Functional Play

The child has an understanding of the actual purpose of the toys and uses them accordingly. For example, they may now drive the toy car around the floor.

Pretend Play

Pretend, or imaginative, play incorporates several levels: Initially the child will use items in a very functional way such as pretending to stir and drink from a toy tea cup. This could be called ‘functional imaginative’ play.

The next stage is using one item to represent another (e.g. they don’t have a cup so they pretend something else is a cup).

Imaginary play then develops into increasingly symbolic play such as projecting real life qualities onto a doll or toy animal (e.g. pretending dolly is a person); pretending something or someone is there that isn’t (e.g. an imaginary house) and taking on imaginary roles (role play).

(Adapted from Beyer & Gammeltoft, 1999)

Stages of social play

Solitary play 

Playing by themselves

Spectator play

Spectating as other children play but without interacting

Parallel play

Playing alongside but with minimal interaction

Associative play

Playing closely together with associated activities but without sharing their play ideas

Co-operative play

Ability to play together in a co-operative way

(Adapted from Sheridan, 1999)


Useful downloads: 

Play leaflet

Bucket Activities

Social Routines

People games

Attention and Listening Activities


Useful websites:

National Autistic Society - Toys, books and play

Hungry Little Minds - Activities for 0-5 year olds

Book Trust - Getting your child reading


'Playing with Toys' 

The page was last updated on 23 June 2020 by paediatricpsychologicalservices.

Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust
Elizabeth House, Fulbourn Hospital
Cambridge, CB21 5EF

T 01223 219400 (open 8:30am to 5pm)
F 01480 398501

IIP-logo-reversed Mindful-employer NHS-Employers-web Triangle-of-Care-member Twitter Logo Youtube Logo Facebook Logo Instagram Logo Wordpress Logo