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How do children develop through the different stages of play?

While all play might look the same, children engage in different types of play as they progress through their early years. There are six stages of play in a child’s social development – from playing by themselves to later with a group.
six different stages of play

The stages of play are crucial to child development. But here is the misconception – no “real learning” occurs during children’s play. Often it is seen as random and chaotic to onlookers. The reality, though, is children learn and develop crucial skills while playing.

Teaching in early childhood education (ECE) settings may look different compared to the education of adolescents. Through the magic of play, children are learning academic skills like language, reading, and mathematics. These are on top of the social skills they learn from playing, like working together or conflict resolution.

Perhaps most importantly, children learn where they fit into the world when they play. They get to know their interests, dislikes and strengths.

All play might like the same to some. However, there are, in fact, six stages of play development in the early years. These were identified by the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development researcher Mildred Parten in her 1929 doctoral dissertation.

The six stages of play

1. Unoccupied play

The first stage occurs almost from birth through to three months of age. Even though unoccupied play might not look like playing, it lays the foundation for future development. During this time, babies observe their surroundings and explore materials around them.

There is little needed to facilitate this stage of play, except placing the baby in a safe space. You could give them something fascinating to look at for extra stimulation. Babies find it easier to focus on high contrast colours (like black and white).

2. Solitary play

Solitary plays happened between three months and two years of age. Here children entertain themselves without any other social involvement. The play is self-directed, where children play with different toys or explore the environment.

During this stage, children begin to develop motor and cognitive skills. Variety is crucial during this period. Because the age range is so broad, new and differing toys or objects should be given to the child, so they encounter a range of textures, sizes and colours.

3. Onlooker play

Onlookers are those children who sit back and “engagingly” observe other children playing. It is the child’s version of adults “people watching” at a café.

Typically, this starts to occur from the age of two. At this stage, children do not need to be encouraged to engage. By showing interest and observing other children, they learn how to play with others – the social rules, cues and boundaries associated with play.

Early childhood education settings, play groups or even the local park are ideal places for onlooker play. These environments allow young children to observe others’ play.

4. Parallel play

Have you noticed toddlers playing side-by-side but not together? This is parallel play, where the toddlers use the same toys, but they do not interact with one another. For example, children could drive cars on the floor next to each other, but their play does not overlap.

This fourth stage of play development is typically seen in three-year-olds. Think of parallel play as a warm-up exercise. Children are working on a range of skills but are not quite ready to put them all together.

Similar to onlooker play, this stage of play is facilitated by having children of a similar age close by with lots of age-appropriate toys. Our best-selling learning and development resource, Play and Learning in the Early Years, says:

“Help young children to relate well together by creating an environment in which they do not have compete for play materials or adults’ attention.”

Toddlers do like to share, after all!

5. Associative play

In this stage, a shift occurs. From being focused on the toy or activity, to being interested in the other players. Children put the skills they learnt from onlooker and parallel play into action.

As they directly engage with other children, they learn to collaborate, communicate and problem-solve. However, play is very loosely organised, with each child more focused on their own play.

To support children’s learning and development between three and four years, it is crucial for them to regularly be in social settings (like an early childhood education setting). There will be play spaces for children of a similar age to play together. For example, playing with cars around a race track.

6. Cooperative play

The final stage of play can begin from between four and five years of age. This is when children really start playing with one another.

Cooperative efforts between the children distinguish this sixth stage. In other words, they are working towards a common goal. For example, building a block tower.

Cooperative play is advanced social play and, ironically, involves social conflict as children learn to share, compromise, and take turns. However, it is vital for social-emotional development.

Early childhood educators can support cooperative play by creating opportunities for children to work together. For example, organising board games and team sports, or encouraging children to make art projects together.

As one of our resources for early childhood educators, Playing and Exploring in the Early Years, says:

“It is important to recognise that different children will move through these stages at different rates. Each child’s own personality and life experiences will influence this.”

The stages of play are essential to support children’s learning and development. As they get older, children advance through the six stages of play, and this teaches them crucial academic and life skills.

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