The Six Stages of Play for Child Development

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As children grow, you might notice their style of play changes. They interact with others more, and try out lots of different activities with their peers, family, and friends.

Different types of play offer different learning opportunities for little ones, and a child’s development relies heavily on their ability to play with others.

Let’s find out more about the stages of play throughout childhood and other types of play that children engage in to learn about the world around them.

The Six Stages of Play for Child Development

Mildred Parten first identified the six stages of play that children go through between birth and five years of age.

Although her theory was put together nearly one hundred years ago, the six stages of play still stand as an integral part of child development studies.

Parten’s observations allowed child practitioners to identify where children are in the process, and what they can expect from children as they get older.

The six stages of play are:

Unoccupied play (0-3 months)

From the moment they’re born, babies start to take in the world around them. Unoccupied play is more about using sensory experiences to understand how their body moves than structured play with a storyline.

Unoccupied play could be:

  • A baby gripping a rattle and shaking it
  • Listening to their parent or caregiver singing
  • Holding on to their own feet and moving around in their cot

Solitary play (3 months – 2.5 years)

When a child is engaged in solitary play, they are mainly engaged with toys they can play with alone, rather than playing with other children.

Whereas unoccupied play doesn’t tend to hold a baby’s attention for very long, solitary play will see them become more focused on an activity they enjoy.

Although children will progress through the other stages, the art of solitary play is never really lost. As adults, we still partake in solitary play when we hop on to the Playstation to play a single-player game.

Examples of solitary play include:

  • Playing with their toys alone
  • Not engaging with other children, even if they’re close by
  • Stacking blocks or playing with musical instruments

Onlooker play (2.5 years – 3.5 years)

When a child is around two and a half years of age, they may start to notice the other children playing around them.

While they may not join in, they’ll observe and take in what others are doing around them.

They may also listen in to conversations between children and/or adults as their understanding of language develops.

Onlooker play could look like:

  • Watching what other children are doing, without interacting
  • A child imitating what another is doing
  • Listening to conversations between their peers

Parallel play (2+ years)

While showing onlooker play behaviour, you may also notice that children engage in the parallel play stage.

This is where children will play alongside each other with the same toys or materials, but won’t actively play together.

They might be painting together or playing house, but they won’t communicate with each other.

Examples of parallel play could include:

  • Painting or drawing together but creating their own masterpieces
  • Playing with similar toys such as dolls but not interacting with each other
  • Working side by side on similar activities without communicating with each other

Associative play (3 – 4 years)

Once a child has passed the parallel play stage, they’ll move into associative play.

This is the stage where more interaction between children begins, although they’re still not playing together, as such.

A good example of this is at a child’s playground where children could be climbing similar equipment, and chatting to each other now and again.

Associative play could look like:

  • Becoming more interested in what others around them are doing
  • Chatting to other children about the tasks they’re engaged in
  • Children waiting their turn before going down the slide, recognising there are other children who want to play on it too

Cooperative play (4+ years)

As a child reaches four years of age, they’ll become more involved with other children and play together as a group.

They’ll all play the same game together, and give each other certain roles throughout. Cooperative play should still be supported by adults who can help to mediate if there are any arguments but on the whole, cooperative play will help children to learn communication and build connections with those around them.

Examples of cooperative play could be:

  • A group of children playing the same game together
  • Children working on an activity such as a puzzle
  • Children including others in their play

Other types of play that help children learn

As well as the six stages of play, there are other types of play that help children to learn. Here are just a few you might see children engaging in:

Constructive play

Constructive play helps children to understand how to put things together, developing their motor skills. They could be building a rocket to the moon, or creating a mini city with building blocks. When a child is engaged in constructive play, they are learning how to work well with others, as well as trying new things, and studying the art of perseverance.

Social play

When children are engaged in a game together or acting as a team to achieve something such as a treasure hunt, they’re partaking in social play.

Social play allows them to strengthen friendships, and work on their communication skills. Nurseries and playgrounds offer a great setting for social play as there will be plenty of other children around to interact with.

Physical play

Also known as rough and tumble play, physical play could include games such as tag, or kicking a ball around together.

Physical play is important for children as they grow, in order to encourage health and wellbeing from a young age.

Fantasy play

Role play and dramatic play both fall into the category of fantasy play. Dressing up as different characters or acting out scenarios such as shopping, children will engage in fantasy play to stimulate their imaginations and step into another person’s shoes.

Fantasy play is a perfect way for youngsters to learn more about the world around them, and practice empathy with their peers.

Symbolic play

As adults, we tend to lose our creativity but children will make a cardboard box into a car, and a stick into a sword.

Symbolic play helps children to use their imagination, and learn key cognitive skills. It also empowers them to play on their own terms, and enhances their problem-solving skills as they use the materials they have to achieve their goals.

Should you engage children in different types of play?

It’s important that children are engaged in lots of different types of play to build a variety of different skills.

Rachel Cox, Head of Childcare at TSW Training says: “While a child might build important motor skills engaging in physical play, their ability to inhabit different roles during fantasy play can add another element to their learning. Engaging little ones in lots of different types of play will ensure they’re building skills in all areas.”

Which type of play is the most important for children?

None of the play types we’ve mentioned here are any more important than the other, although it is vital that children have the opportunity to partake in free play where they can lead their own activities.

Children learn by using their own initiative, and interacting with others so by allowing them to have this time to do their own thing, you’re helping them to grow and develop.

Lead your childcare team to success

If you’re looking for training for your childcare setting, we have plenty of options available with friendly training advisors to meet your staff at their level.

See our full range of childcare apprenticeship programmes and chat to our team to find out how we can help you take your staff to the next stage of their career.

Picture of Richard Hywood
Richard Hywood
Richard is TSW Training Apprenticeships’ Employer and Community Engagement Manager. His articles will help your business prepare for and manage apprentices.
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