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Tuesday, April 2, 2019

6 Stages of Play and the Importance of Each

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski (Flickr)

Play is fun for kids, but it's also an important learning tool. While playing, my girls have learned skills like holding a pencil, waiting in line, and sharing their toys. Sociologist Mildred Parten Newhall agreed that play is essential for child development, and she discovered that children under five years of age engage in six stages of play. As parents, caregivers, and teachers, we should understand these stages as we help young children develop and grow.

Unoccupied Play

As babies, our kids spend most of their time sleeping, eating, and making dirty diapers. When they are awake, they move their legs, feet, arms, and hands in random ways or stare at a mobile above their crib or floor play mat.

These actions seem insignificant, but they're a form of play that supports a baby's development. Through unoccupied play, babies discover how their bodies work and move, learn more about their surroundings, and prepare for future developmental stages.

Solitary Play

While observing children from birth to age two, we typically don't see them interact much with other kids. Their preference for solitude isn't because they're antisocial. Rather, kids at this age play alone because they simply don't notice other children who are sitting or playing nearby.

Solitary play is normal and developmentally important. Children discover their interests, explore their surroundings, and learn how to work independently as they play alone. Even now, my girls sometimes retreat to separate rooms where they can play alone and regroup, recharge, and rest.

Spectator or Onlooker Play

Around two years of age, children start to notice other children at play. While they're still not ready to join in or participate in the fun, they do watch closely from the sidelines. These kids may even ask the playing children questions about their game or activity.

I used to think that my spectating girls were shy or hesitant. However, the onlooker stage of play teaches our kids more about how life works. They develop self-awareness, empathy, and nonverbal communication skills as they observe others play.

Parallel Play

Children start to play alongside or near other kids after they turn two years old. While kids in this play stage may not interact with, talk to, or share with their playmate, they do sit together and may even pay attention to each other.

This stage of play lays the foundation for more complex play stages and social play activities our kids will explore later in life. I know my girls developed important motor skills, spacial awareness, and language through parallel play.

Associative Play

Our kids begin interacting with each other around age three or four. This play stage normally doesn't include rules or organization. However, children may talk to each other, ask questions, and work toward a common goal during associative play.

During this stage, kids may play with their own individual toys while sitting near each other on the floor. They may also swing and climb on the same piece of playground equipment or build a block tower together as they begin to understand how to get along with peers.

Cooperative or Social Play

When children play the same activity together, they're engaging in cooperative or social play. This stage of play normally begins at age four.

Children may negotiate the game they'll play, take turns suggesting plots, and change roles as they cooperate to achieve a goal. Some of my girls' favorite social play included running a pretend restaurant, playing a game of tag, and completing a puzzle together.

From birth to age five, our children experience six stages of play. Sometimes, they experience one or more stages simultaneously, and they may incorporate elements of earlier play stages as they engage in advanced play stages. The important thing is that we parents, caregivers, and teachers encourage our kids to play and provide plenty of play time as we help them develop and grow. What examples of these stages of play have you observed in your children?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

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