December 06, 2021 4 min read

Play is the most effective way children learn, and they begin playing as soon as they enter the world.

As children grow, their play evolves as well. Brains and bodies rapidly develop in early childhood, so young children are working overtime to figure out who they are and how they experience the world around them.

A researcher and sociologist named Mildren Parten studied how play develops in young children. Because of her work, educators better understand how children engage in play during their first five years. 

What Are The Six Stages of Play?

While every child engages in play differently, children explore six development stages from zero to five.

Unoccupied Play: Birth-3 Months

Infants make seemingly random arm, leg, or mouth movements that may not appear significant to adults at first glance. However, infants are exploring how their bodies move, and these sensory activities are the beginnings of play.

While unoccupied play may not seem to have apparent educational value, it is vital to a child’s overall development. 

Characteristics: 

  • No social interaction.
  • No prolonged focus.
  • No storyline.

What Might It Look Like?

  • Reaching arms up while opening and closing their hands.
  • Grabbing a nearby object and releasing it. 

What Are Children Exploring During This Stage?

  • Object permanence
  • Depth perception
  • Grip and tactile skills

Solitary Play: Birth-2.5 Years

In this early stage, the child plays entirely alone and isn’t particularly interested in engaging with other children or adults. In fact, they may be completely unaware of the presence of others. 

Though this is most common before the age of three, all age groups should have continued opportunities to engage in solitary play to relax and explore ideas independently.

Characteristics: 

  • More attention on toys and extended focus. 
  • Symbolic play (ex. Grazing a small block on their head like a brush.)
  • No clear structure or set goals.
  • No or little interest in interacting with others. 

What Might It Look Like?

  • Playing with a toy for longer than a few minutes.
  • Hearing a bird at the playground and walking around to follow the sound. 

What Are Children Exploring During This Stage?

  • Maintaining focus.
  • Trial-and-error.

Onlooker Play: 2.5-3.5 Years 

This type of play can happen at any age but is primarily evident in toddlers. 

The child will watch other children or adults play with toys or games, but they will make no effort to join them. However, they might engage by asking questions. 

A child may play the role of onlooker when they feel shy around new or older people, hesitant to participate, or unfamiliar with specific rules of the game.  

Characteristics: 

  • Beginnings of showing interest in the play of others.
  • More comfortable watching than actively participating.

What Might It Look Like?

  • Watching older children as they play more organised games. 
  • Listening to peers while they build a racetrack with blocks. 

What Are Children Exploring During This Stage?

  • Listening
  • Observing 

Parallel Play: 3.5-4.5 years 

During this stage, a child begins to play next to other children without actively engaging with them. While there is no active interaction, observation is taking place. The child starts to take notice of children playing nearby and may mirror or mimic their play. 

This stage is the foundation needed for more complex social play. 

Characteristics: 

  • Playing with similar objects as another child, but not playing with them.
  • Mirroring actions and behaviour.
  • Minimal communication. 

What Might It Look Like?

  • Play dates where children play with separate toys next to each other. 
  • Drawing a picture while sharing colored pencils with another child. 

What Are Children Exploring During This Stage?

  • Observing
  • Mimicking movements or behavior
  • Basic communicating 

Associative Play: 3.5-4.5 years

At this point of development, children begin to show more interest in engaging with other children over toys. They will start to play together but may be unable to do so cohesively. While the children play to accomplish similar goals, such as building a tower or climbing playground equipment, there are no clearly defined rules or specific organisation. 

Characteristics: 

  • Sharing materials.
  • Building connections through shared interests.
  • Continue to have different goals.
  • Beginning to communicate by asking questions and making suggestions. 

What Might It Look Like?

  • Taking notice that they need to divide up the legos so that everyone can build. 
  • Asking questions about what they’re doing (ex. Is blue your favourite colour? Are you going to make it taller?)

What Are Children Exploring During This Stage?

  • Negotiating
  • Communicating more complex thoughts and ideas

Cooperative Play: 4.5 and Up

This stage is when children play together by sharing ideas, defining rules, and creating guidelines. They do this through role playing games and more organised activities. Through this more complex stage of play, children rapidly begin to develop their social skills.  

Characteristics: 

  • Sharing a common goal. 
  • Separating into teams or adopting different roles. 
  • Beginning to reach compromises to continue play.

What Might It Look Like?

  • Organised games like Hide and Seek, Hopscotch, I Spy, and Tag.
  • Dramatic role play such as playing House or Superheros.

What Are Children Exploring During This Stage?

  • Compromising and resolving conflicts
  • Creativity and Imagination
  • Taking turns and sharing

Every Child Is Different

While the stages of play may appear to be linear on paper, children can be exploring multiple stages simultaneously. For example, an older child who engages in collaborative play may still have instances where they participate as an onlooker. 

Please note that the ages specified in this article act as general guidelines. They are in no way meant to dictate the pace of development for every child. 

Play Begins At Birth

Play is necessary for child development. The role of parents and educators is to provide the necessary support and guidance required to ensure that they develop essential skills to engage with their peers positively and build meaningful connections.


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