Stages of Play

Children are curious, active, excited, and restless when searching for new and unique stimuli. 

Children for the initial stages of their lives are highly susceptible to the stimuli in the surrounding environment and are heavily dependent on their senses to develop an understanding of the world around them. 

As your child gets older they begin to interact with different materials, toys, and even individuals in their immediate environment to make sense of the world.

While playing is fun and exciting, it contributes more to your child’s development process than you may think.

Any play activity regardless of being systematic, structured, or even unstructured is great for keeping your child occupied for hours on end.

But playing is more than just an enjoyable and joyful activity your child can indulge in. Playing is an integral part of the early childhood development process and allows the child to develop an intimate understanding of the world that surrounds them. 

But as a parent, if you have noticed certain changes in the way your child plays, do not be worried. 

Believe it or not, but just like the different stages of development, there are different stages of play as well. 

It is imperative to be aware of the different stages of play in order to provide them with age-appropriate materials and toys to interact with. 

Here is everything you should know about the different stages of play, to help you provide your child with an optimum learning experience.

Why is play important for children?

While fun activities involving play are regarded as the antithesis of education, they contribute significantly to the child’s physical, social, emotional, cognitive, fine motor, and gross motor development process. 

Playing is integral for the early stages of the childhood development process to help the child reach age-appropriate milestones. 

When playing, children are able to develop important skills required for forthcoming concepts they will be introduced to in kindergarten and elementary school. 

To help you understand the importance of play here is how play contributes to your child’s development process:

Cognitive Development:

Basic cognitive skills like problem-solving, critical thinking, and willingness to learn new things are developed with the help of interactive play.

Social Development:

Social skills such as cooperation, building new relationships, communication, sharing, and empathizing are also developed through play.

Emotional Development: 

Children are also encouraged to partake in imaginative play that allows them to express themselves, their feelings, their thoughts, as well as their emotions.

Physical Development:

When indulging in activities involving play, children are promoted to manipulate and maneuver objects, materials, and toys, which promotes the development of fine motor skills. 

Furthermore, when provided with controlled freedom, an open space, and ample opportunities to jump, leap, turn, twirl, run, or hop, children, are also able to develop gross motor skills.

Academic Development:

While activities involving play do not directly introduce the child to complex or arbitrary concepts, they do allow them to become acquainted with different forthcoming concepts they will learn in elementary school and kindergarten. 

Children are able to absorb complex concepts with help of play, at a very young age.

Concepts such as mathematics, science, and even culture are often introduced to the child through play activities. 

Not only that, but children are also able to develop linguistic skills and an understanding of a language with the help of interactive play.

How many different Stages of Play are there?

The concept of different stages of play was developed by an American sociologist and a researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, Mildred Parten Newhall. 

In Parten’s doctoral dissertation (1929) she mentioned that there are in total six different stages of play in early childhood development. 

The six stages of play in the early childhood development process are delineated below:

  • Unoccupied Play
  • Solitary Play
  • Onlooker or spectator behavior
  • Parallel Play
  • Associate Play
  • Cooperative Play

Parten’s Six Stages of Play Explained:

In the year 1929, Mildred Parten Newhall published her dissertation in which she introduced the six main stages of social play in children. 

According to Parten, these stages of play often occur in children during the initial 5 years of the child’s life. 

During the early childhood development process, the child passes through the different stages of play in a linear pattern. 

Each stage of play is equally important and normal in children and there is no need to worry if they don’t manifest at the same time as other children. 

To further understand the different stages of play, here is an in-depth explanation of Parten’s Stages of Play:

The Unoccupied Play (birth to 3 months)

This stage of play begins in children between birth to 3 months of age when the infant begins to lay a firm foundation for their movement and play.

During this stage of play, the infant begins to establish their gross motor skills and starts to freely move their arms, legs, feet, and hands. 

This form of play is not organized but rather an exploration of their surroundings and their own body.

As a parent during the Unoccupied stage of play, it is important to provide your infant with freedom of movement and different stimuli, materials, and textures.

Solitary Play or the Independent State (birth to 2 years)

The Solitary stage of play begins in children between birth and 2 years of age when the infant or child starts to play with objects or toys independently without any interactions. 

During the independent stage of play, the child is establishing basic concepts such as understanding gravity or the permanence of objects. 

For this stage of play, parents should provide their child with a Yes Space where they can play freely, as the child is not ready for interactions yet.

Onlooker Play or Spectator Play (2 years)

The Onlooker or Spectator stages of play often manifest in children when they reach the age of 2 years. 

During this stage of play, the child prefers to become a spectator and watch the children play without joining in. 

While parents or immediate caregivers feel the urge to pressure their child into playing with others, this stage of play is quite important for their optimum development.

The onlooker stage of play allows children to comprehend and identify different rules of play as well as socialization. 

As a parent, during this stage, it is best to let your child observe rather than pressuring them to join other children.

Parallel Play (2 to 3 years)

The Parallel play stage commonly starts in children between the ages of 2 to 3 years when they mimic other children instead of playing with them. 

You might notice your child playing near or alongside another child but do not directly interact with them. 

The lack of social interactions displayed by the child during the parallel stage of play may concern some parents, it is important to note that this stage is a great transition for the forthcoming stages. 

To help your child during this stage of play, as a parent or immediate caregiver, you can parallel play with them. It is as simple as sitting beside the child and doing your own tasks to make them feel comfortable.

Associate Play ( 3 to 4 years)

Associate play is noticeable in children between the ages of 3 to 4 years when the child begins to interact with other children, but the number of interactions is quite small. 

Your child might be partaking in similar play activities or playing with the same toys as children around them, but will not directly interact with others. 

During the Associate stage of play, the child begins to utilize the skills they learned during the onlooker stage. 

As a parent or immediate caregiver, you can help your child during the associative play stage by providing them with open-ended toys. 

These open-ended toys will encourage your child to interact, collaborate, and build new relationships with other children.

Cooperative Play (4 to 6 years)

Lastly, the Cooperative stage of play in children manifests when they reach the age range of 4 to years. 

The cooperative stage is where the child begins to play with other children and has an interest in both the activity as well as the other children equally. 

During this stage, children begin to collaborate and play with toys or materials with the same goal.

The cooperative stage of play is integral for developing social skills such as communication, conflict resolution, and empathy in children. 

To help your child during the cooperative stage play, you can partake in activities where you and your child can work together or collaborate. 

Activities such as household chores, board games, and even collaborative artwork can help significantly during this stage of play.