6 Stages Of Play (Why Learning Through Play Is So Important)

Albert Einstein once said… “Play is the highest form of research.” 

Because the truth is… Play is the key to unlocking our world.

And through the 6 stages of play, your child will learn vital social, emotional, cognitive and physical skills that will carry them through the rest of their lives.

What Are The 6 Stages Of Play?

Mildred Parten Newhall was an American Sociologist and Researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development who studied children between the ages of 2 to 5 years, during one-minute play sessions, to analyse their social participation.

From these observations, she developed her theory of the Six Stages of Play to comprehend how a healthy child’s play developed.

These 6 stages of play are:

6 Stages Of Play Graphic

1. Unoccupied Play

In the very early weeks, your newborn baby’s unoccupied play is all about learning how their body works and bonding with their primary caregivers.

And in this first of the 6 stages of play, your baby will make a lot of arms, hand, feet and leg movements as they learn how their bodies work and explore what they are capable of doing.

Unoccupied play usually occurs between the ages of birth to 3 months old.

2. Solitary Play

Following on from unoccupied play, the 2nd of the 6 stages of play occurs between birth and 2 years of age.

This phase is known as solitary play.

In this stage, children will play alone and will not be interested or motivated to play with others.

Solitary play is very important for developing healthy minds as it teaches your child to play independently, explore the world through their senses, develop their motor skills and gain a greater awareness of what their bodies are capable of. 

3. Onlooker Play

From about 2 years of age onwards, children will start to observe what other children are doing, but will not yet attempt to play with them. 

This is known as onlooker play.

And during the 3rd of these 6 stages of play, your child may pause what they are doing to briefly watch another child play… But they will quickly return to their own activity and continue to play independently.

4. Parallel Play

The 4th of the 6 stages of play is parallel play.

This type of play usually starts to occur from 2 ½ years upwards.

And as the name suggests, parallel play is when two or more children play alongside one another, often engaging in the same type of play… 

But NOT playing together.

5. Associative Play

The fifth stage of play is associative play.

Associative play occurs between the ages of 3 and 4 years.

Children who are engaged in associative play will begin to develop an interest in other children and what they are doing and playing with… 

But they are not yet able to negotiate successfully with their playmates.

Although interactions will be limited during associative play, young children will start to play together by mimicking what each other is doing and by engaging in the same activity.

6. Cooperative Play

And finally, the last of the 6 stages of play is cooperative play.

Usually occurring from 4 years onwards, cooperative play is when your little one will show an active interest in what others are doing as they start to participate in play as a group.

And through healthy cooperative play, your child will start to be able to: 

However, with all this said…

Your children will still need your patience and support to get them started and it is very important that you model good social skills to show them appropriate ways to communicate and cooperate with other children!

Other Types Of Play To Be Aware Of

Within the stages of play, there are some other types of play to consider where your child can learn some very important life skills (particularly through cooperative play):

1. Competitive Play

Playing a board game or taking part in a team activity is a great way to learn about competitive play as it teaches your child how to work as part of a team, take turns, follow rules, deal with the realities of winning and losing, and regulate the emotions that come with it.

2. Constructive Play

Playing with building blocks, Lego and other construction toys teach your child to problem solve, try again when a construction fails, and develop cognitive and fine motor skills.

My All-Time Favourite Building Block Set
Melissa & Doug Wooden 100 Pcs Building Blocks Set
No nursery is complete without wooden blocks. Perfect for refining fine motor skills, improving problem-solving and developing creativity... Teach your budding engineer new colours and shapes through fun play!
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3. Fantasy/ Imaginative Play

Fantasy and imaginative play are hugely important for preschoolers. 

It is a type of free play that enables your child to let their imagination run wild on their own or to learn how to create a fantasy world by cooperating with their peers.

Fantasy and imaginative play are incredible at improving language and social skills as well as self-confidence. Invest in a set of dress-up clothes to get your little one’s imagination going.

Born Toys Dress Up & Pretend Play 3-in-1 Costume Set

Provide the perfect opportunity for your child to imagine, explore and play through the art of role-play with 3 amazing gender-neutral costumes!

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4. Physical Play

Getting your children up and moving everyday is essential to their healthy physical and emotional well-being. 

So spend time outside every day doing fun activities and encourage your children to nurture a love for being in the fresh air and being active. 

As your children grow, encourage them to take part in sports activities, nature rambles and cycling. And offer them plenty of opportunities to kick a ball, run, jump and climb! 

5. Creative Play

Creative play is where your child can explore their creativity through music, art and crafts. 

By playing an instrument, singing, and working with playdough, clay, crayons and paint, you can help your child explore their creative potential and express their feelings through art.

12 Natural Beeswax Crayons [2 Pack]
Unleash their inner Van Gogh with these wonderful 100% beeswax crayons! Ideal for rainy days or walkway rubbings, these crayons will stand up to anything your little artist can come up with!
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Stages Of Play Examples And Activities

Need some ideas, examples and games to help your child through certain stages of play? Here’s all you need to know…

Unoccupied Play Examples (0-3 Months)

My Top Pick For Newborn Rattles
iPlay, iLearn: 4x Plush Baby Soft Rattle Toys

Lightweight and easy to hold, these gentle rattles provide the perfect amount of sensory stimulation for tiny babies to play with. Durable, soft and washable, these rattles will definitely stand the test of time!

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Solitary Play Examples (3-24 Months)

Our Pick
The Lovevery Play Gym | Stage-Based Developmental Activity Gym & Play Mat for Baby to Toddler

This play gym is designed by experts for baby's developing brain and body. Winner of multiple awards it includes everything you need in an activity gym-from batting to teething to learning to focus-for a whole year of play.

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Onlooker Play Examples (2+ Years)

Melissa & Doug Let’s Play House Dust! Sweep! Mop! 6 Piece Pretend Play Set
Watching you do household jobs is intriguing for your little one! Capture this fascination and engage their inner cleaner with this lovely mini-me set from Melissa and Doug to nurture an understanding of life skills from an early age.
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Parallel Play Examples (2½+ Years)

PieceCircle Toddler Musical Instrument Set

All children should have a set of musical instruments to experiment with. As you know I am a huge fan of wooden toys and so this set ticks all the right boxes for me. It will have longevity and is safe for little ones to chew should they feel the need.

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Associative Play Examples (3-4 Years)

Monkey Around Game By Peaceable Kingdom

Engage with your child through simple and playful Monkey-ing Around fun to boost their gross motor skills, hand-eye coordination, imitation, vocabulary and social-emotional skills!

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Cooperative Play Examples (3-4 Years)

Melissa & Doug Wooden Jigsaw Puzzle Bundle For Kids, Ages 3+

These classic 24-piece wooden puzzles are easy to grasp, lift and fit together to create bright scenes of the ocean, being on safari and walking among dinosaurs! Perfect for a quiet afternoon toddler activity, these puzzles will be a wonderful addition to any toy box.

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Why Is Play Important In Early Childhood Education?

The importance of play in early childhood development and health cannot be emphasised enough.

Playing allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.

And whilst play is vital to healthy brain development…

Playing is also how children explore, investigate and interpret the world around them and begin to understand human emotions and relationships. 

Play helps develop a child’s social & communication skills, cognitive development and powers of reasoning. 

In addition to all this, a child’s sense of self-worth and faith in his or her own abilities are greatly influenced by play and how we interact with them.

Offering Opportunities To Play And Learn

As young children are learning all the time through play, it is important that as parents and carers, we provide them with plenty of opportunities to play. 

To enable our children to flourish in all developmental areas it is important that they have the following opportunities to…


As parents, we must make sure our children are having fun when they play and never feel pressurised.

So never push a child to play or participate in a certain activity if they do not want to. 

Children develop in their own time and at their own pace, so be patient and try not to compare your child to their peers.

REMEMBER: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” – George Bernard Shaw.

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Author Image Bio
Paula McLaren is the founder of Teething to Tantrums and a highly qualified childcare expert with over 40 years of experience as a Norland Nanny. She holds a BA (Hons) in Early Years Development & Learning (0-6 Years) and the prestigious Norland Diploma. Paula has worked as a night nanny, run a successful daycare center in London, and helped raise countless children using her tried and tested developmental and guidance methods.

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