Early Childhood Education

The 6 Stages of Play

The 6 Stages of Play

Universal fact: Kids love to play. Fortunately, there’s a nearly universal track that children take as they learn to play and interact with others. Decades ago, researcher Mildred Parten identified six stages of play that children go through, and what she observed is still relevant today. Here’s the 411 on 90-year-old research that still applies to modern parenting, cognitive development, social development, and overall child development. 

#1: Unoccupied Play (Birth-3 Months Old)

This stage typically occurs during infancy. Children engage in seemingly random movements or explore their surroundings without a specific purpose or pattern. For example, a baby might wave their arms or kick their legs. They’ll stay in this phase for the first couple years of life, so don’t expect much from them 🙂

#2: Solitary Play (2-2.5 Years Old)

During this stage, children engage in independent play and focus on individual activities. They play alone, using their toys or objects of interest without interaction with others. For instance, a child might play with blocks, puzzles, or engage in imaginative play by themselves. It’s at this point that children start entering play phases on a yearly basis. (That’s a rough time frame. Don’t get worried if your child’s development looks a little different.)

#3: Onlooker Play (2.5-3 Years Old)

When children enter the Onlooker Play stage, they turn into (in the best possible way) little lurkers. They’ll sit on the edge of the action and watch other children play without stepping in and participating. This may be a little jarring for parents who have been raising a very extroverted child. For parents of introverts, this stage may make them think that their child will never interact with another human being. Never fear. This is very normal behavior for this age. Onlooker Play gives children the chance to ease into play by learning through observing. It provides them with the opportunity to take it slow as they try to understand the actions of others.

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#4: Parallel Play (3-4 Years Old)

Parallel Play is the play of toddlers. Children this age will play alongside the other kids around them, but their play still remains pretty independent. Although they may show brief interest in another child’s activities, there isn’t much interaction or cooperation. Many parents may have higher expectations for play at this age and get really discouraged when their 4-year-old still won’t engage in playtime with their peers. Take a deep breath and give your (and your kid!) some slack. They need a little more time before they’re fully ready for that. 

#5: Associative Play (4-5 Years Old)

Think of this as the “herding cats” stage of play. Associative Play is when there is a noticeable increase in social interaction between children of a similar age. If they’re in a preschool setting, children may start happily participating in structured group activities and share markers or toys. There may even be an agreed-upon plan for what they’ll play next. But that’s usually where the order stops. Once play begins, children in the Associative Play stage tend to follow their own goal or plan instead of conforming to the goals of the group.

#6: Cooperative Play (5+ Years Old)

Finally! The stage of play that many consider the “golden age” of childhood. This is true group play — it’s organized, group-oriented, and collaborative. Children share ideas, roles, and work toward a common goal. Cooperative play often involves more complex games, rules, and divisions of labor. For many adults, this stage of life is where the earliest memories of life begin. That being so, they understandably assume that childhood play always looks cooperative. In reality, a child needs to be at least 5 years old before this kind of complex, collaborative play ever begins. 

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So if you’ve ever wondered, “Why isn’t my daughter playing with other kids?” or “Why can’t my son play pretend?” it may be because they aren’t quite there yet in terms of their cognitive and social development. If you have concerns about how they play or their interactions with others, contact your pediatrician. Otherwise, sit back and wait. They’ll more than likely make the transition soon. 

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