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The 6 Stages of Play And How to Facilitate Each Stage For Healthy Development

The 6 Stages of Play And How to Facilitate Each Stage For Healthy Development

Playing Is How Children Learn and Develop Crucial Skills

For children, play isn’t just for fun. It’s how they learn.

Children develop important skills through play that they continue to use throughout their life. Often this is referred to as play-based learning.

And it goes beyond just the skills you might expect, like conflict resolution, communication, working with others, and problem-solving.

Play is also how children learn academic skills like language, reading, writing, mathematics, and comprehension.

And while play might appear random to us as adults, there are actually 6 stages of play that children progress through as part of their development.

The 6 stages of play were identified by researcher Mildred Parten, at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development. Her research has been used and is still referenced in many influential papers to this day.

The six stages of play as identified by Parten are:

  1. Unoccupied play (Birth – 3 Months of Age)
  2. Solitary play (3 Months of Age – 2 Years of Age)
  3. Onlooker Play (2 Years of Age)
  4. Parallel Play (2 Years of Age and Older)
  5. Associate Play (3-4 Years of Age
  6. Cooperative Play (4+ Years of Age)

Now let’s take a look at each of the 6 stages of play in detail:

Stage of Play #1: Unoccupied Play (Birth – 3 Months of Age)

Unoccupied play is the first stage of play, and begins almost right from birth.

This type of play can be characterized by your child making seemingly random movements, such as relatively uncontrolled movements of the arms, legs, hands and feet.

Tummy time can also be considered a form of unoccupied play.

Although unoccupied play may not look like it, it is actually considered play in very young children.

How to Facilitate and Encourage Unoccupied Play

There’s very little needed in order to facilitate this stage of play.

Simply place your baby in a safe place on the floor with room to move. You can also give them something interesting to look at for additional stimulation.

For very young children, something with high-contrast colors (black and white is excellent) because babies have an easier time focusing on high contrast colors at this stage of their development.

My favourite toy at this age is a baby play gym.

Baby lying on their back on a play gym in unoccupied play (6 stages of play, stage 1)

Stage of Play #2: Solitary Play (3 Months – 2 Years of Age)

Solitary play is the second of the six stages of play and usually begins at around three months of age.

During this stage, children play alone and do not interact with other children. They engage in activities that are self-directed, such as playing with toys or exploring their environment.

Children begin to display an increased level of focus during this stage. They also sustain play for longer periods of time than in the unoccupied stage.

Solitary play helps children develop their cognitive skills as they are learning to explore and experiment with their environment. They are learning to recognize patterns, form mental images, and identify objects. This also helps children develop their problem-solving skills as they are learning to explore and experiment with their environment.

These play behaviors also help children develop their sense of self-awareness and independence.

This stage of play remains unstructured, and although your child doesn’t show interest in other children or adults, it’s perfectly normal in younger children.

To help you keep track of the developmental milestones in your little one’s first year of life, be sure to download a copy of the free developmental milestones checklist by clicking here. With this checklist you’ll know exactly what to expect at each month, which will give you extra peace of mind as you watch your baby grow and develop, and help you understand when you may need to seek further advice.

How to Facilitate Solitary Play

Age-appropriate toys are a great way to facilitate this type of play in early childhood. Because the age range for solitary play is so broad, you’ll need to make sure you provide new toys as they get older.

Click here for a list of developmentally beneficial toys I recommend for younger children (3 months old).

Variety is also key at this stage. Providing a variety of different toys, activities and environments help facilitate your child’s desire to explore the world and objects around them.

child plays on the floor with a wooden car by themselves as an example of solitary play  (stage 2 in the 6 stages of play)

Stage Of Play #3: Onlooker Play (2.5 – 3.5 Years of Age)

As your child’s play skills develop, they will progress to onlooker play at around two and a half years of age. At this stage, children are observing other children playing and learning from them.

At this stage, children will tend to watch other children playing, but won’t engage with them. They’ll simply observe, or be an onlooker.

While you may want to encourage your child to engage, there really is no need, as children showing interest in others and observing them is a totally normal part of development. This stage is important for children to learn about social cues and to understand how others play.

As your child watches, they are learning to understand the boundaries of others and the rules around social play. This also helps children develop their observational skills. They’ll likely have lots of questions about what they are seeing as well.

How to Facilitate Onlooker Play

Simply being around other children who are the same age (or similar) to yours will facilitate this stage.

The key is placing them in an environment where they can observe other children’s play. Childcare/daycare, playgroups, mothers groups, spending time with friends who have similar age children, or simply spending time at the local part are all fantastic ways to do this.

Child looking on as a group of others are playing together

Stage of Play #4: Parallel Play (3.5 to 4 Years of Age)

Parallel play is the fourth of the 6 stages of play development and usually occurs between three and a half, to four years of age.

Parallel play occurs when children are playing side-by-side but not interacting with each other. They’ll be playing with similar toys, but not playing together.

This stage of play helps children further develop social skills. Although they aren’t directly interacting, they will often share toys without playing together directly. For example, one might sit something down, and the other child then picks it up. Or children will be using the same toys but playing separate games right next to each other.

At this stage, your child starts learning to understand social cues and develop empathy. They are learning to recognize the emotions and feelings of others, and they are learning to take turns and share. This stage of play also helps children develop their communication skills, as they are learning to interact with others in a respectful manner.

How to Facilitate Parallel Play

Like onlooker play, parents and early childhood educators can facilitate this by providing an environment where different children of similar ages are able to play in close proximity. For example, in a sand pit or toy room.

But in this case, it’s important to provide lots of age-appropriate toys, with enough for two children (or more) to each play with them independently.

preschool children work on building their own block towers while sitting next to each other

Stage of Play #5: Associative Play (3 – 4 Years of Age)

Associative play is fifth in the 6 stages of play. This type of play starts at around three years of age. This is a key stage in your child’s development because it’s where they begin to develop social skills through playing with others.

This is the stage in child development where they begin directly engaging in activities with other children.

Children start to collaborate and share toys and resources in a more deliberate way. This is where your child learns to cooperate and collaborate with other children.

Although they will be engaging with peers, the play won’t be organized, and the children won’t be focused on a common goal. Each child will still be very focused on their own play and their own goals.

At this stage, children are learning to develop their communication and teamwork skills. They are also learning to understand and respect the boundaries of others.

How to Encourage Associative Play

Create play spaces where children of a similar age are able to play in close proximity to each other, with toys that encourage them to play together.

For example, a car track with multiple cars. Or a dollhouse with several dolls who all share the house.

two children playing side by side with blocks, each building their own tower, which demonstrates associative play, the 5th stage in the 6 stages of play

Stage of Play #6: Cooperative Play (4 Years of Age and Older)

Cooperative play is the final stage of the 6 stages of play and usually doesn’t develop until around four and a half years of age. The main difference between associative play and cooperative play is that the child begins to play with others in a way that is directed toward a common goal.

Cooperative play is a more advanced form of social play.

Often at this stage of play development children engage in imaginative or pretend play where they take on different roles. They will often create imaginative worlds and recreate scenes or scenarios that they are familiar with.

Some examples are:

  • Playing schools, with one child acting as the teacher, while the rest act as students
  • Creating a restaurant scene, where they divide into chefs and customers
  • Re-creating scenes from movies
  • Board games
  • Organised sports

Children are learning to understand the perspective of others, and how to work as a team. They are also developing their language skills and learning how to compromise and negotiate. This stage of play also helps children develop their self-confidence and independence.

How to Encourage Co-operative Play

The key to encouraging cooperative children’s play is to create opportunities for children to work together and collaborate.

A few ways you can do this include:

  • Organising sports
  • Providing board games other structured, team based games and activities
  • Encouraging them to build things together. This could include things like towers, art projects, science experiments, and other creative endeavours.
An image of 3 children dressed up as astronauts engaging in cooperative play, which is the 6th stage of the 6 stages of play
Emma Hubbard

Emma Hubbard

Emma Hubbard is a Pediatric Occupational Therapist with over 12 years of clinical experience. She received her Bachelor's Degree in Occupational Therapy from the University of Newcastle. Emma is the founder of Brightest Beginning & writes about all things child development, sleep, feeding, toilet training and more.

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