Play is a natural part of childhood, and anyone who has spent time with young children knows that many kids can entertain themselves almost effortlessly, and can transform mundane items like a cardboard box into endless imaginative variations. 

Spontaneous, unstructured play is essential in early childhood, but understanding the stages of play and their relevance to a child’s development can help parents add even more value to playtime, perhaps even transforming a leisure activity into an organic learning experience.


Here’s what we’ll cover:

Why is play important?

Although playing may seem to some people like a silly way to pass time and expend energy, it is critical to human health and development. Children learn about the world around them through play; they practice motor skills and learn how their bodies work, they develop social skills and relationships with playmates, they gain cognitive skills and introductions to concepts ranging from counting to basic physics. Playing is a safe and comfortable way to explore new ideas and experiences which can lead to a lifelong curiosity about learning. 


What are the stages of play?

Although each child develops at their own pace, children generally progress through similar stages of play as they reach various developmental milestones. Researcher Mildred Parten identified the six stages of play, which include: 

Unoccupied play 

The first stage of play happens in early infancy, generally between birth and three months. What may appear to be a series of random movements is actually your baby discovering how their body works by exploring objects around them and trying to grab, push, reach, or pull. 


Solitary play

Children between infancy and toddlerhood generally prefer playing alone. Solitary play promotes independence, gives younger children an opportunity to work on problem-solving with different toys, and allows them to master personal skills. Children in this stage may choose to play alone even if playmates are available.


Onlooker play

Around two years old, children start to watch other children play. As a child watches others, they begin to learn play skills that will aid their own social interactions. Don’t assume your child is scared or shy if you notice them observing other children instead of actively participating; they’re often having fun and learning through these observations, just as adults enjoy “people-watching” as an activity. 


Parallel play

Between two and three years old, children may start engaging in parallel play, which involves playing in close proximity to another without direct interaction. For instance, two children sitting side-by-side while building their own block towers or pushing toy trains around without collaboration. Again, this is good practice for future social development. 


Associative play

Younger children begin to experience a shift in their style of play when they reach the associative play stage, which generally signals the beginning of social participation among preschool children. Although preschoolers may not commit to organized, interactive play, they begin to enjoy playing with other children, like swinging on swings together. 


Cooperative play

The final stage of play involves social integration and occurs when children begin establishing rules or order for a play activity. This is an important component of emotional development as children learn to cooperate with others, negotiate conflict, learn to share, and engage in problem-solving. Caregivers are often needed to help mediate playtime debates as children learn to navigate socially.


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How to encourage play-based learning

Most playing involves learning, but as a parent, you can help to optimize your children’s play experiences and support your child’s growth with the following best practices: 


Keep play age-appropriate

Remember the stages of play as you shop for toys or explore new activities, and try not to worry or pressure your child to engage in associative or cooperative play before they are ready. Expose your child to new opportunities without expecting they’ll have “perfect” play experiences. 


Don’t overwhelm your child

Toys and activities are fun, and as a parent, it’s often tempting to lavish your child with gifts. But having large numbers of toys constantly available can be overstimulating and overwhelming for children. Keep toys interesting by presenting them on a rotating basis, instead of having every item available at all times. Purchase, build, or repurpose storage bins so that you can swap toys out. One bonus feature of this method is that having a limited number of items available at any given time also helps keep play areas less cluttered. 


Offer suggestions

Expand your child’s imagination by asking questions and offering suggestions as they play. For instance, if they’re playing with a play kitchen, ask what they would do if the oven wasn’t working? If they’re using building blocks, challenge them to build the highest tower possible. These simple challenges and questions can help them develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. 


Play with your child

Getting involved is a great way to help your child learn to share, take turns, and play well with others. Let them practice leadership skills by encouraging them to host the game, explain the rules, or help you learn.


Activity ideas for different stages of play


Help your child progress through the different stages of play and the lessons involved in each, with the following age-appropriate activities: 


Unoccupied play activities

Support your baby as they learn about their body and spatial awareness by giving them plenty of time, space, and opportunity to explore. Encourage tummy time, help them grasp rattles or small plush toys, and take their hands or feet in your hands and play patty-cake or peek-a-boo type games. 


Solitary play activities

This is the stage of play that generally lasts the longest. Provide toys and unstructured play time as your child learns more about using objects and activating their imagination. Building blocks, balls, stuffed animals, toy vehicles, and ride-on toys are all great activities for independent play. Try to choose toys that encourage engagement, instead of the types of toys that light up, make sounds, and entertain your child without interaction. 


Onlooker play activities

When your child starts to seem curious about the actions of their peers, it’s a great time to get involved in an independent activity that is done in a group setting, such as story time at the library, martial arts, gymnastics, or dance class. Check out a local playgroup or spend time at the park, so that your child can become familiar with the play habits of other children. 


Parallel play activities

Establish a common play area so that children can play near each other. For instance, sandboxes, train tables, activity mats, and swing sets all provide opportunities for kids to enjoy a social play experience that is not dependent on coordinated efforts. 


Associative play activities

Pretending is a great way for kids to play together while still having the flexibility to pursue their own interests. Provide dress up clothes, a tent or playhouse, or a play kitchen, for a general sense of structure without concrete roles or rules. 


Coordinated play

Offering children games like Simon Says, Red Light, Green Light, or Mother May I, or board games like Candy Land, are ideal ways to introduce play activities that involve rules, communication, listening, and taking turns. 

Play is powerful and encourages creativity, curiosity, communication, and perseverance; building blocks to a life well-lived. Regardless of how your child plays, the most important factor is to recognize the value in it and to create time, space, and opportunities for them to enjoy playtime.