What Is Associative Play? 8 Incredible Benefits & Examples!

By Paula McLaren •  Updated: 07/06/21 •  9 min read

Associative play is the 5th stage of play that your little one will progress to! Not only is it a crucial milestone, but associative play helps your child develop an understanding of sharing, taking turns, communicating and using their imagination! 

Learning to play around others is a skill we all need and one that continues throughout your little one’s childhood!

So what exactly is associative play?

What are some examples of this type of play?

What are the main benefits that we need to be aware of?

And how does playing associatively differ from other forms of play?

What Is Associative Play?

Associative play is the stage of play where a child will start to interact with other children of their own age.

They will play alongside others observing what they are doing and often mimicking their play. 

However, they will not play together with others in a cooperative way but will start to communicate with other children being driven by their interest in the toy or the children playing around them rather than seeking a common goal.

What Are The 7 Characteristics Of Associative Play?

The main characteristics of associative play are:

  1. Children will play alongside each other but not with a common goal,
  2. They will take an interest in what others are playing with and doing,
  3. There will be very little communication,
  4. They may trade for toys or resist sharing,
  5. They may play together but in a chaotic fashion,
  6. They will not have a common goal but still be driven by their individual desires,
  7. They will start sharing and taking turns.

At What Age Do Babies Enter This Phase Of Play?

It’s important to note that babies are NOT capable of associative play yet. Typically, young children will show signs of associative play at around 3 years of age.

This is when their language skills are well developed and they are able to choose who they wish to play alongside and what activities they are interested in.

Children will start to engage in associative play AFTER parallel play but BEFORE cooperative play.

REMEMBER: There are 6 stages of play (and each one is equally important on your child’s development journey!)

The Six Stages Of Play

Here’s a quick recap of the 6 types of play you can expect your little one to engage with in the early years.

1. Unoccupied Play (Newborn)

This is the first stage of play when your baby will be observing the world around them but with little or no interaction. 

2. Solitary Play (4 Months Upwards)

Once your baby’s vision and fine motor skills develop and they start reaching and grabbing objects they are able to engage in solitary play

This is an exploratory phase in young babies and a phase that lasts well into toddlerdom.

Many toddlers will continue to engage in solitary play even when they have moved onto other stages of play.

3. Onlooker Play (2 To 3 Years)

This type of play is when your young child will watch what others are doing but will not play with them. They may talk to other children but they will not engage with what they are doing.

4. Parallel Play (2 To 3 Years)

This is the stage of play where toddlers will play alongside their peers but do not interact with them.

5. Associative Play (3 Years Of Age)

Like parallel play, the young child will play alongside others but will now engage in the same activity sometimes mimicking what others are doing such as running around or dressing up. However, their play will not be cooperative, organised or have a goal.

6. Cooperative Play (4 To 5 Years Of Age)

Cooperative play is the final stage of play when young children play with each other in a cooperative fashion. They are interested in their peers and what they are doing and they will play games that require them to work together.

This stage of play helps children learn how to deal with conflict, compromise and regulate their emotions. It is a very important stage in their social development.

6 Stages Of Play Graphic

What Is The Difference Between Associative And Cooperative Play?

As mentioned earlier, associative play happens BEFORE cooperative play.

You will know that your child has progressed to cooperative play when they start to play with other children with a common goal. 

They will start to share willingly, contribute ideas to play and also listen to what others have to say. 

During the associative play stage, a child will NOT work as a unit but will show an interest in what others are doing. They may play in groups but play will be slightly chaotic with their own interests at heart and without a common goal.

How Does Associative Play Promote Language Development?

Associative play promotes language development because this stage requires your child to start communicating with their peers.

During associative play, your child will need to talk to others as they learn how to swap and exchange toys (not always successfully!) and express their desire to take turns, include others or not.

Your child will need to communicate with others for what they need or want and they will also be more curious and want to ask questions about what others are playing with.

All in all, associative play is wonderful for promoting language development in your little one.

What Are The 8 Main Benefits Of Associative Play?

There are so many developmental benefits of associative play here are the top 8 you need to know:

1. Sharing

Learning to share is a tough skill for young children to learn, but during associative play, they will learn that they need to use words rather than actions to share. 

Sharing at this stage may not necessarily mean playing together but rather taking turns which will either mean giving up a toy or asking if they can have a go.

2. Negotiating

Sharing naturally leads to negotiation at this stage. Children will need to learn how to ask nicely for a toy, suggest that they can have a turn or offer up a toy to swap. 

This is quite a complex skill and one that we as humans will use throughout our lives.

3. Problem Solving

Problem-solving goes hand in hand with the two previous points. 

In order to play successfully with others, children will need to come up with a plan. However, at this stage their problem solving will be purely selfish and it will be designed to get them what they want (not thinking about others just yet!)

4. Learning To Work In Groups

Associative play is the stage at which children first start to play in groups. 

They will communicate, ask questions and express their desires but play will be chaotic and not driven by a common goal.

However, children will copy each other and start to appreciate what it is like to be doing the same as others at the same time.

Other Important Benefits Of Associative Play Are: 

5. Language Development

As I touched on earlier, associative play also helps with language development as children have to learn how to communicate with their peers. 

Not necessarily cooperatively but they will need to ask questions, barter and negotiate as they play.

6. Fitness

This stage of play can also help with your young child’s fitness!

Getting up and about and running around with other children even in a crazy fashion is good for a child’s physical well being!

7. Brain Development

Undoubtedly associative play takes your child’s interaction with others to a new level. It will boost cognitive development, imagination, communication and creativity.

8. School Readiness

During this stage of play, children start to learn how to mingle with other children of their own age and start to communicate with them. 

This in itself sets them on the road to school readiness!

How Can Parents Encourage Associative Play?

The best way that parents can encourage associative play is to ensure that their child has plenty of opportunities to mix with children of their own age. 

Providing age-appropriate play opportunities is the best thing that parents can do for their children.

Arrange playdates, attend playgroups and plan visits to the park. 

TOP TIP:If your little one appears reluctant to play with others, give them time and space to observe what is going on.

Try to resist pushing them to interact with their peers before they are ready.

What Are Some Examples Of Associative Play?

Here are a few examples of associative play activities to try with your little one and their playdates:

3 Common Concerns About Associative Play

Some children will take longer than others to start engaging in associative play. This can lead to some parents worrying that their children are not moving forward socially.

Some common concerns are: 

1. Your Child Still Engages In A Lot Of Solitary Play Or Parallel Play

It is perfectly normal for children to continue to engage in parallel and solitary play even after they have reached the age at which they can take part in associative play. 

TOP TIP: It is important to remember that all children develop at different rates and that to continue to engage in solitary play on occasions is a good thing.

2. Your Child Is Reluctant To Mix With Their Peers

If your child is reluctant to mix with other children then they may just be shy.

Therefore, it may take them longer to start to engage comfortably with others. Allow them the space to go at their own rate.

3. Your Child Stands On The Sidelines And Observes

If your child is standing to one side but showing interest in what other children are doing, allow them time to observe the room and offer to go with them to look at what others are doing. 

With you at their side and engaging with the other children, they may feel confident enough to take part too.

If you are overly concerned about how your child is interacting with others then you should consult your paediatrician who, if they think it is necessary, may refer you to a counsellor or play specialist.

The majority of children will progress through all the 6 stages of play eventually, but the pace at which they do so will vary from child to child and will be greatly determined by their personality.

Paula McLaren

Paul Mclaren - Norland Nurse NNEB RSH is the founder of Teething to Tantrums and has been in the child care industry as a Norland Nanny since 1982. Since then, her mission has been to help parents become the best they can possibly be. And each year, she continues to help more families understand their child's development, the trials and joys of parenting and of course, how to care for their little ones.

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