The Complete Guide To Associative Play

By Paula McLaren •  Updated: 04/08/22 •  8 min read  •  Toddler » Toddler Play

A crucial developmental milestone that often gets overlooked…

Associative play is the gateway stage to playing with others!

Well, let’s dive right in!

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 but may not directly engage,
  3. There is very little communication between the children,
  4. They may trade for toys and maybe start sharing and taking turns,
  5. Children may also begin to play together in a chaotic fashion.

At What Age Is Associative Play?

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.

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.

To learn more about the 6 stages of play, I’ve written an in-depth post talking about each stage and why they’re important for children. So be sure to check that out after reading this post!

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. 

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, including others or not.

Your child will need to communicate with others about what they 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 Benefits Of Associative Play?

There are so many developmental benefits of associative play:

1. Learning To Share

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 by giving up a toy or asking if they can have a go.

You can also help your toddler understand this concept by introducing books that address this in a fun story! Here’s one of my favourites:

Llama Llama Time to Share

Loved by families all over the world, Llama's story about learning to share his toys with his neighbours is a brilliant way of opening the conversation about how and why sharing is important to your toddler!

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2. Growing Negotiating Skills

Sharing naturally leads to negotiation at this stage of play development.

Children will need to learn how to ask for a toy nicely, 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. Improved 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 about others just yet!)

4. Learning To Work In Groups

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

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

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

5. Boosted 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. 

Children will need to ask questions, barter and negotiate as they play.

6. Improved 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. Beneficial 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 will also 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 We Encourage Associative Play In Our Children?

The best way that we can encourage associative play is to ensure that our kids have plenty of opportunities to mix with children of their own age. 

Providing age-appropriate play opportunities is the best thing we can do for our children!

Arrange play dates, attend playgroups and plan visits to the park. 

Encourage your children to share during communal activities such as pretend kitchens or sandpits.

Our Pick
Step2 Naturally Playful Sand Table

I love that this table has a tough moulded lid that ensures the sand stays dry during wet weather but means your child can still play with the table regardless!

I also love the durability and easy-to-clean design of this sandpit too. It's perfect for sensory exploration for children of all ages!

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What Are Some Examples Of Associative Play?

Here are a few examples of associative play activities that your little one may engage in with their playdates:

My All-Time Favourite Building Block Set
Melissa & Doug Wooden 100 Pcs Building Blocks Set

No nursery is complete without wooden blocks. They provide hours of fun and education through play from honing fine motor skills, improving problem-solving, developing creativity and teaching colours and shapes. My favourite is this colourful set from Melissa and Doug.

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3 Common Concerns About Associative Play

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

So to put your mind at ease, here are the 3 most common concerns about associative play and my advice about the situation.

1. My Child Still Engages In A Lot Of Solitary 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. 

It is important to remember that all children develop at different rates and that continuing to engage in solitary play on occasions is a good thing!

Sometimes we all need a little bit of time to ourselves.

2. My Child Is Reluctant To Mix With Their Peers

If your child is reluctant to mix with other children… 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. My Child Stands On The Sideline And Observes Instead Of Getting Involved

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 later.

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.

I hope you have found today’s post about associative play helpful, but if you have any other questions you’d like to ask me, be sure to email me at [email protected] and I’ll be happy to help!

For now, thank you for reading and until next time, with love and support, Happy Parenting!

Paula McLaren

Paula McLaren - Norland Nurse NNEB RSH is the founder of Teething to Tantrums and has been in the childcare 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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