Engaging with children and their families to facilitate the ability of children to play, as well as the ability of the parent to ‘read’ their child’s play and enjoy playing with their child, can be a very satisfying part of the work of a therapist. The therapist also needs to be able to play and to be playful when carrying out this type of therapy. In this section I have provided information, resources and products to assist therapists in their work with children and families.

This section is divided into: assessing play; engaging children in play; Learn to Play Therapy overview; resources and products.

Assessing Play

Assessing a child’s play ability gives you lots of information about how a child engages with their world and how they understand their world. The ability of a child to self-initiate their own play is, I think, a key play ability. Many of the children I have worked with find self-initiation of play very difficult. Assessment of a child’s play then, is about observing a child play and understanding and interpreting this information within the child’s family, social and cultural systems.

There are many types of play and the assessments in this section are focussed on assessment of pretend play. Pretend play is a more mature form of play and its early development occurs from the second year of a child’s life to be a dominant form of play when a child reaches preschool age.

To be able to pretend in play, a child needs to be able to initiate a play idea and/or action and impose meaning onto objects and actions. Play is a complex ability to assess as children engage multiple skills as they are playing. There are many play assessments available, however I will discuss four that I have developed or am developing. These are presented by age group:

Pretend Play Enjoyment Developmental Checklist (PPE-DC): This assessment will be available from early 2017. This assessment is an informal observational assessment of a child’s ability to engage in pretend play. It is suitable for children aged 12 months to 6 years and has information on self-esteem and self-regulation up to early adolescence. This assessment provides an observational guide for pretend play ability, self-esteem and self-regulation. How children play gives information on how children understand their world and their place in it. The ages covered in this assessment for pretend play ability are planned to be: 12 months, 15 months, 18-20 months, 21-23 months, 24-29 months, 30-35 months, 36-47 months, 48-53 months, 54-59 months, 60 months, 72 months. For self-esteem and self-regulation, the ages covered are 2 years to early adolescence. The administration for play ability is similar to the SIP-DC and for self-esteem and self-regulation there are further administration options. The scoring includes symbols to show: spontaneous ability, imitation, focussed attention and joining in the play.

Child-Initiated Pretend Play Assessment-2 (ChIPPA-2): The Child-Initiated Pretend Play Assessment-2 was released in 2020, it’s updates include a revised manual and scoring booklets. The kit materials remain the same.

This assessment is a norm-referenced standardised assessment of a child’s play. This assessment is for children aged 3 years to 7 years 11 months. This assessment takes 18 minutes for 3 year old children and 30 minutes for 4 to 7 year 11 month old children. There are two sessions within the ChIPPA assessment which are: observation of conventional-imaginative play ability (9 minutes for 3 year olds and 15 minutes for 4 – 7.11 year olds) and observation of symbolic play ability (9 minutes for 3 year olds and 15 minutes for 4 – 7.11 year olds). In other words, the child is observed playing with toys and observed playing with unstructured play materials. Each session is divided into 3 sections and has the same administration format. In the first section (this is 3 minutes for 3 year olds and 5 minutes for children aged 4 – 7.11) the play materials are introduced to the child and the child is invited to play with the materials. In the second 3 or 5 minute section, the therapist models 5 play actions. These modelled actions occur when the therapist has an opportunity to use the play materials without destroying the child’s play scene. The therapist models during this 3 or 5 minute section as often as possible without interfering with the child’s play. The final 3 or 5 minute section, the therapist stops modelling and again observes the child, encouraging the child to continue playing if needed. The assessment finishes when the time is up or when it is clear that the child is finished playing and cannot complete the time. The ChIPPA can be scored as the child plays or it can be videoed and then scored by video. The items that are scored are: elaborateness of play, object substitution and ability to self-initiate play. There is also a clinical observations sheet which notes typical indicators of play and indicators of play deficits. There is now an Australian Indigenous version of the ChIPPA. The ChIPPA has been trialled in Canada, Japan, Singapore, Iran, Brazil, Australia, Switzerland, and the UK.

Sarah, B., Parson, J., Renshaw, K., & Stagnitti, K. (2020). Can children’s play themes be assessed to inform play therapy practice? Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 1 -11. Doi: 10.1177/1359104520964510


Indigenous Child-Initiated Pretend Play Assessment (I-ChIPPA): This assessment is a culturally responsive version of the Child-Initiated Pretend Play Assessment for Australian Aboriginal children aged 4 to 7 years.

In Australia there are many First Nation countries and communities with Elders as custodians of knowledge and lore. In each community, what children play is influenced by their culture. The Indigenous Child-Initiated Pretend Play Assessment is based on the Child-Initiated Pretend Play Assessment with the I-ChIPPA being developed through consultation with communities and Elders in North West Australia. In this manual, Karen Stagnitti and Alma Dender encourage users of the I-ChIPPA to defer to the Elders in their community in how this assessment should be administered and what animals should be included. The I-ChIPPA is designed so that the administration and materials are responsive to the child’s culture. We are also aware that the name of this assessment may need to be changed for use within some communities.

The I-ChIPPA can be used when there is a concern about a child’s play ability. The I-ChIPPA is for children aged 4 to 7 years 11 months and can be administered with pairs of children or with single children. For pairs of children, the I-ChIPPA also includes the Play Partner Scale, developed by Alma Dender. The Play Partner Scale takes into account a play partner when playing. Using the I-ChIPPA, a child’s ability to sequence play actions, use symbols in play and self-initiate play are observed. There are no norm scores in the I-ChIPPA as comparing one child to another is not culturally responsive in many communities. Rather, a description of a child’s play is made, based on observations of a child’s ability to sequence play actions, use symbols in play, self-initiate play, play with a partner, and other observations noted in the Clinical Observations form. The information gained from the I-ChIPPA can be used to inform significant adults in a child’s life on how to support a child to develop their play to more complex levels.

More information on the background to this can be found in:

Dender, A., & Stagnitti, K. (2011). The development of the Indigenous Child Initiated Pretend Play Assessment: selection of play materials and administration. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 58, 34-42.


Alma M. Dender & Karen Stagnitti (2015): Children’s play in the Australian Indigenous context: the need for a contemporary view, International Journal of  Play, 4, 3-16. DOI: 10.1080/21594937.2014.977036. (2016) Corrigendum, International Journal of Play, 5:1, 116-116, DOI:10.1080/21594937.2015.1134046

Dender, A. & Stagnitti, K. (2017). Content and cultural validity in the development of the Indigenous Play Partner Scale. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 64, 283–293.


Download ChIPPA PDF

ChIPPA-2 publications list

Animated Movie Test: This assessment will be available through this website later in 2017. It is undergoing further trials currently. This assessment is for young people aged 12 to 18 years. In this assessment, the young person is instructed that they are the director, producer and actor in a movie. They have 15 minutes to set up the movie set and 15 minutes to act out the movie. Seven boxes of movie props are offered and these are displayed on a table top. The assessment is videoed with a focus on the young person’s hands and movie props. The young person is supplied with a copy of their movie. The items are scored using a Likert scale and items are scored from the video of the assessment. The items are: set up, ability to sequence events, generation of problems, initiation of ideas, emotional engagement in the movie, understanding of character roles, verbalisation and use of symbols. A shorter version of this assessment using 4 sets of movie props is being developed for 8 to 11 year olds.

Engaging children in play

Engaging with children in play to facilitate an increase in their ability demands several skills of the therapist. Children who find it difficult to play or cannot play usually do not understand play behaviour when they see it. Consequently, they are not interested in what the therapist is doing. The therapist needs to be able to play and be playful themselves because children will engage more easily if they perceive that the therapist is having fun. This means the therapist uses their voice, face, and body movement in a playful way when engaging with children in play. The therapist works very hard to get initial engagement. The therapist watches the child constantly and responds to the child always. Working with children to build or increase the ability to play means giving power to the child – encouraging the child to make decisions about what will happen in the play and setting up the environment so the child feels safe to play. To begin with the therapist must know the developmental play level of the child and begin to engage with the child on this level. If the play activities are too advanced for the play level of the child, the child will not engage and may even start to feel stressed. You begin by engaging with the child on the play level they are on and then adding complexity to the play when the child is ready.

Learn to Play Therapy

Learn to Play Therapy grew out of my clinical practice as an occupational therapist working in early childhood intervention services. As I began to understand how to observe and assess a child’s spontaneous ability to pretend in play, I started to understand that many of the children I was working with had solitary and social pretend play levels that were (in many cases) years younger than their chronological age. Knowledge of children’s play ability was very helpful in knowing where to start to play with them and also what play skills they needed to be able to spontaneously play by themselves and then with others. After many years using Learn to Play Therapy and the privilege of being at a university and in a position to carry out research, I have come to understand much more about children’s play, how to engage them in play, and been amazed at the consequent changes and shifts in a child’s language ability, social interaction, and self-esteem.

The aim of Learn to Play Therapy is to build the spontaneous pretend play ability of children. One of the great satisfactions of being a therapist I have found, is to give a child the ability to play by him/herself and with others. In doing this, you become redundant as a therapist as children grow in their ability and generalise their play ability skills to home, neighbours, and early childhood settings.

Learn to Play focusses on pretend play as this type of play, is the most complex and mature form of play. Pretend play also impacts on language (particularly narrative language), social interaction, and emotional integration of the child’s experiences. The play skills that are the focus of Learn to Play Therapy are: ability to spontaneously self-initiate play, sequencing play actions logically, using objects as something else (object substitution or symbols in play), engaging with a doll or teddy character outside of themselves, integrating their play so a clear play script is evident, role play and socially interacting using play.

When engaging with a child in play the principles of Learn to Play Therapy are:

  1. Start simple – start where the child’s play ability is
  2. True Play is fun – emotionally engage the child in the play activity (if it is not fun, you won’t be as effective and the child will not be truly playing)
  3. Regardless of what play skill you are working on, always be aware of: the play script, number of actions in a play sequence, use of symbols in play and if a doll/teddy is being part of the play. (All these skills must also be understandable by the child and on the child’s play level)
  4. Challenge the child when you think the child is ready. (You introduce a higher level skill or new skill ,or problem to the play script)
  5. Work towards the child taking over the play – so they are initiating the play
  6. Always respond to the child
  7. Always monitor that the play is coherent (logical and sequential), if not, bring the child back to an earlier level of play

Further resources are available here, Workshops and training are also available here.

Karen’s ORCID number is 0000-0002-6215-3390. Displaying 92 of her 130 publications.

Interview ‘How to Play’ with Karen Stagnitti from the
ABC Statewide Queensland 612


The Neurodiversity Movement and Learn to Play Therapy

Please find our statement on the Neurodiversity Movement and Learn to Play Therapy here



The children are home! Here’s some ideas to keep busy minds and bodies busy. Play is learning. Remember that imaginative play or pretend play is thinking play. Download
Learn to Play flyer: Information for parents/carers This is a Learn to Play flyer containing information for parents/carers Download
Learn to Play flyer: Referral Information for professionals in health or education This is a Learn to Play Flyer containing referral Information for professionals in health or education. Download