Do you know about the “6 stages of play” in early childhood?

You’ve heard before that children learn best through play, and play is all about fun!

As children play, they develop all sorts of important skills they will use for a lifetime, such as turn-taking, communication, problem-solving, creativity and so much more!

Did you know that your child will progress through several different stages of play as they grow older, develop and gain more skills?

Having a general idea of how play evolves can help guide you toward age-appropriate activities, materials and expectations for your child.

Mildred Parten , an American sociologist and researcher developed the theory of Six Stages of Child’s Play (1932).

Mildred Parten

Parten observed American preschool age children while studying at the Institute of Child Development in Minnesota. She argues that children’s play changes as they develop and gain social skills. She stated that children go through 6 distinct stages of play that generally, but not always, correspond to the child’s age:

1. Unoccupied Play (Birth – 3 Months)

Parten defined this stage as the child not playing, or performing random movements in one spot. But this is the beginning of play, and it starts at birth.

When your baby is moving their arms and legs and wiggling their body – they are playing!

You can think of this as the most basic type of play. Most objects will be interesting to your baby during this time because everything is so new.

2. Solitary Play (Birth – 2 Years)

You can also call this stage Independent Play. This is when children start to play on their own and do not pay much attention to what other children or adults are doing. It starts in infancy and is common in toddlers and continues as your child grows.

All age groups engage in solitary (or independent) play!

During this play, children may read a book quietly or explore dandelions in the backyard. This play can be both quiet or active.

3. Onlooker Play (2 Years)

This stage is all about watching others play (both children and adults). During this stage, the child observes others playing but does not engage in the play themselves. As children observe during this stage, they are learning how to enter play situations and get along with others.

As a parent, this is your opportunity to show your child that you can play too! Try getting up and dancing, I’m sure your toddler will be excited by what you are doing!

4. Parallel Play (2+ Years)

This is when your child plays side-by-side with other children, but does not engage or interact with them. During this play, children may not be interacting, but they are paying attention to what the other is doing.

This stage marks the beginning of your child’s desire to connect with others and lays the foundation for more complex play later on!

5. Associative Play (3 – 4 Years)

When children start to interact more with others, they are engaging in associative play.

Associative play involves children playing together and interacting, but they do not organize their play or set rules.

For example, a group of children may be building a tower together but they do not have any rules for how to achieve a tower and other children are freely allowed to come and go during the activity. This is an important stage as this is when children start learning to get along with others.

6. Cooperative Play (4+ Years)

This marks the beginning of teamwork!

During this stage, children start to play together toward a common purpose. For example, children who have entered this stage of play will choose what they want to play and assign appropriate  roles (“I’ll be the mom today and you can be the baby”), they may build something together, or play a simple game.

This is where children learn and practice many skills such as taking turns, problem solving, and negotiating!

Play starts at birth and continues on for a lifetime! Mildred Parten’s 6 Stages of Play in early childhood are excellent guidelines to help guide you towards realistic expectations of your child’s play skills. But remember, they are just guidelines and every child is different!

Parten MB Social Participation among Preschool Children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 1932; 27 (3): 243–269.

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