6 Stages of Play and Why They are Important

Albert Einstein once said that “Play is the highest form of research.” We once thought that Play was just having fun and mindless, but research shows that even in Play, children are learning. They can not only learn about math, science, and engineering through Play, but they can also learn essential social skills while playing. They can learn about problem-solving, advocating for themselves, decision-making skills, working in a group, and sharing and resolving conflicts.

Children’s playing styles evolve as they grow older. Mildred Parten, a sociologist and researcher defined the six stages of play development for children in the late 1920s. Her research has helped educators better understand how children learn to play, and it will continue to help parents everywhere stop worrying about Timmy not wanting to play with the other kids in the sandbox just yet. The process has stages, and each child learns them independently.

Let’s look at how children’s social Play develops and changes over time. Social Play begins at birth and progresses through six stages.

  1. Unoccupied Play (Birth – 3 months)

Yes, children begin to play as soon as they are born! Babies make a lot of random movements with their arms, legs, hands, and feet at this stage. This is the beginning of the Play. It can be defined as sensory activities that lack focus or narrative. At first, this stage may seem un-educational, but it has a significant developmental purpose. The unoccupied play stage helps babies to orient themselves in the world. They learn to control their limbs and improve their motor skills.

  1. Solitary Play (Birth – 2 years)

Babies will then move on to Solitary Play. It is a stage where a child plays alone and with little interest in toys outside their immediate vicinity. They will have their blocks, toy cars, dolls, a pile of Tupperware, or whatever toy they are interested in. It’s not that children are against the idea of playing with friends, they are just indifferent to them!

Even as a child grows old and masters more advanced forms of Play, solitary Play may be continuously employed. Even in adulthood, we play alone so we can recharge, reflect and explore new ideas on our own.

  1. Spectator/Onlooker Behavior (2 years)

Based on the name of this stage, children just look at or watch other children play but do not join or play with them. This is also the first sign of children showing interest in the play behaviors of other children. They may also have many questions about what the other children are doing.  

  1. Parallel Play (2+ years)

Parallel Play is the next stage of Play for toddlers. Two small children will sit side by side doing an activity during this stage of play development. Still, they won’t engage with one another. They’ll tend to share resources and keep a safe distance. However, they will not be playing with the same gameplay or goals.

Playdates at this early stage would usually be about getting children more comfortable with peers of the same age. Still, younger children will often not start playing together well.

  1. Associate Play (3 – 4 years)

Associate Play starts when children begin acknowledging one another and working side-by-side, but not necessarily together. Children begin to interact with each other and ask questions about the toys and what they are making. 

This play stage sounds like working alongside your colleagues at the office. Your child’s friends at the playground may act as coworkers, playing alongside each other and content to be together while also working on their activities.

  1. Cooperative Play (4+ years) 

Cooperative Play is the final stage of play development, which begins around the age of four for some children. Cooperative Play is when children engage with one another, pretending together and coming up with their own rules and norms for playtime. This stage represents fully integrated social group play.

You will see the beginning of teamwork at this stage. Children will play together for a common purpose and begin to socialize with other children.

Yes, Play starts at birth, but it doesn’t stop there. We should include playing in our children’s daily routine; giving them this time would be significant for their development. These stages are just general guidelines for what you can expect of your child’s play skills; remember that different children have different play preferences.