What Are The 6 Stages Of Play? Why Are They So Important?

By Paula McLaren •  Updated: 11/02/21 •  15 min read

Play is all about having fun, exploring the world around us and learning how we fit into it!

In fact…

Play is the ONLY explorative tool that children use to navigate this crazy world!

And through the 6 stages of play, your children will learn vital social, emotional, cognitive and physical skills that will carry them through their entire lives!Albert Einstein once said… “Play is the highest form of research.” 

Because, the truth is…

Play is the key to unlocking our world.

And it is through the 6 stages of play that you child will learn and develop to their full potential!

What Are The 6 Stages Of Play?

Also known as Parten’s theory of play… what are the 6 stages of play children will develop through?

6 Stages Of Play Graphic

1. Unoccupied Play

The first stage of play is unoccupied play.

Now, you may think that very young babies don’t really play at all… But…

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

This is an exploratory phase during which your baby will make lots of arm, hand, feet and leg movements as they learn how their bodies work and what they are capable of doing.

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

2. Solitary Play

Following on from unoccupied play, the next stage 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 minds as it teaches your child to play independently. 

Through solitary play, your child will start to explore the world through their senses, develop their motor skills and gain a greater awareness of what their bodies are capable of. 

They will also begin to understand how the world around them functions.

The beautiful thing about solitary play is that…

As your little one grows up, they will continue to engage in solitary play as it remains an important part of their lifelong development!

3. Onlooker Play

From about 2 years of age, 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.

Your little one may pause what they are doing to briefly watch another child…

But they will quickly return to their own activity and continue with their own independent play.

During onlooker play, children may ask questions from the sidelines or offer an opinion or observation, but they will NOT attempt to actively take part in an activity with others.

4. Parallel Play

Next comes parallel play

This type of play usually starts to occur from 2 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.

This is a very important transitional phase in play where your child is still holding on to a lot of solitary play and onlooker play but they’re slowly moving towards associative and social play by being closer to other children while they play.

Children going through parallel play will now start to see themselves as part of a social group, but they will still be VERY self-centred. 

Young children engaged in parallel play will often grab the other’s toy as they do not yet understand the concept of sharing…

Often this can easily end in tears, but this is the perfect stage to start to teach your little one about the intricate concept of sharing and taking turns.

5. Associative Play

The fifth stage of play is associative play.

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

Children in this phase of 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 cooperate and negotiate successfully with their playmates.

Although interaction will be limited, young children will start to play together by mimicking what each other is doing and engaging in the same activity as their peers. 

They will not communicate a great deal and their goal will still be very self-centred.

But they will still have a lot of fun regardless!

6. Social / Cooperative Play

Lastly, stage 6 of play is social play

Also known as cooperative play… This is when children show an active interest in what others are doing and start to participate in play as a group.

Usually occurring from 4 years onwards, your little one is ready to start to learn how to play cooperatively with their peers and with you!

In fact…

All the previous stages of play have been setting the scene and working towards this final stage of play!

Through social play, they 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!

Why Is Play So Important?

So, why do we emphasise the importance of play in child development?

Well… play is the way in which children learn about the world around them!

Play develops every aspect of your child’s development from their creativity, to their imagination, dexterity, physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. 

In early childhood, playing is how children learn to explore, investigate and interpret the world around them.

It also forms the base of understanding human emotions and relationships. 

In addition to all this, a child’s sense of self-worth and faith in their abilities are greatly influenced by how we interact with them when we play!

So, as you can see, play is very important in the healthy development of your child on every level! 

Therefore, it is up to us, as parents and carers, to provide a safe and nourishing play environment in which the children in our care can best play, learn and flourish.

For more information on the importance of play in your child’s development be sure to read my post The Crucial Importance Of Play In Child Development!

TOP TIP: Play stages do not work in isolation. In fact, they function in a collaborative way that builds in layers.

How To Support Your Children Through The 6 Stages Of Play

In order to support your children through the 6 stages of play and ensure that you are offering them the best opportunities to thrive through play, you need to understand what you can offer them in terms of toys and play experiences at each stage.

Unoccupied Play (0-3 Months)

Here are 4 ways to support your baby through the first stage of play: unoccupied play!

What Can You Do?

Why Should You Do It?

1. Help Baby to Move Their Body. 

You can help your baby learn about their body by giving them plenty of opportunities to kick and move their arms and legs and explore what their bodies can do. 

2. Practise Tummy Time

Tummy time is a great way for your baby to start to learn to use their body. Tummy time books and play mats help to make tummy time more interesting and stimulating.

3. Play With Rattles

Showing your baby rattles, teddy bears and common household objects will stimulate their interest in the world around them.

4. Lullabies and Rocking

Rocking your baby and singing songs to them in the early weeks is great for bonding and stimulates your baby’s senses.

Solitary Play (3 Months-2 Years)

Here are 7 ways to support your little one through the second stage of play: solitary play!

What Can You Do?

Why Should You Do It?

1. Have a Play Gym

Your baby will love playing with a play gym. This is a great way for them to engage in solitary play while learning to reach and grab.

2. Utilise Tummy Time Mats

Tummy time will still be very important in the early stages of solitary play. A tummy time activity mat will help to keep them engaged.

3. Read Books Together

Introducing books to your baby and toddler is great for solitary play. This will also help to sow the seed of a lifetime and develop an appreciation for books.

4. Encourage Imaginative Play

You can also start to introduce toy animals, train sets and even a dolls house to encourage imaginative play.

5. Building Blocks and Nesting Sets

Introducing simple building blocks and stacking sets are also great for solitary play and will keep your little one occupied for ages as they explore what they can do.

6. Have Fun With Crayons and Paper

From 12 months onwards, it is a good opportunity to introduce crayons and paper followed by playdough and painting as they reach their second birthday. These activities will keep your little one entertained for hours and have the added bonus of refining their imagination and fine motor skills!

7. Cause and effect

Children in the phase of play will love cause and effect toys. It will allow them to develop their fine motor skills and improve cognitive development too.

Onlooker Play (2 Years+)

Here are 6 ways to support your toddler through the third stage of play: onlooker play!

What Can You Do?

Why Should You Do It?

1. Household Chores

Toddlers of this age will love to watch you cook, clean the house, fold laundry etc and be very happy copying what you are doing. Encourage them to join in, ask questions about what you are doing or just let them watch.

2. Encourage Roleplay

Role-play can help develop imaginative and cognitive skills and is a form of play that toddlers can play alongside each other without having to play with each other. Provide your little one with role-play opportunities such as dressing up clothes or a play kitchen.

3. Go To The Park

Trips to the park are great for parallel play as children are able to watch others at play without the pressure of taking part.

4. Go To Playdates and Toddler Groups

Arranging playdates and attending toddler groups is a great way to give your toddler the opportunity to engage in parallel play. They will be able to learn from you as they watch your interaction with other children and adults too. 

5. Have Open-Ended Toys

Open-ended toys are great for all stages of play, but especially so at this stage of their play journey! They will help develop problem-solving and imaginative thinking and a set of building blocks for example is ideal for this. 

6. Be Present

It is very important that you engage with your child through play too. By watching your child play, you will be able to observe where they are in their play development and encourage them where necessary.

Parallel Play (2+ Years)

Here are 3 ways to support your toddler through the fourth stage of play: parallel play!

What Can You Do?

Why Should You Do It?

1. Attend Toddler Play Groups

Again, continue to provide your toddler with plenty of opportunities to play alongside other children on playdates or at toddler groups. You may have to play next to other children for a while until they feel comfortable enough to engage in parallel play alone.

2. Break Out The Musical Instruments!

Musical instruments or singing rhymes in groups are great ways to encourage parallel play. Singing and dancing with you at home also helps your child to engage with parallel pay!

3. Be On Hand To Help and Support

Prompt your child to take notice of what others are doing or help them wait their turn or negotiate sharing with another child.

TOP TIP: Not wanting to join in with others is quite normal when learning how to play…

So don’t try and force your little one to take part if they don’t want to. Equally, don’t force your child to give a toy they are playing with to another child unless they are ready to.

Associative Play (3-4 Years)

Here are 6 ways to support your preschooler through the fifth stage of play: associative play!

What Can You Do?

Why Should You Do It?

1. Encourage Roleplay

Sharing a play kitchen or dressing up with other children is great for encouraging associative play and will continue to provide hours of fun.

2. Get Crafty

Another great form of associative play is for young children to do the same craft activity alongside each other. Painting, drawing and colouring are fantastic activities to try.

3. Embrace Outside Play

Giving your child the opportunity to play with others outside on toys such as tricycles or taking turns on the same equipment at the park will help to develop their associative play skills.

4. Play Together

You can also help your toddler develop their social play skills by playing with them. Play a simple board game, do a craft activity together or cook a meal together. These are all great ways for you to help your child through associative play.

5. Practise Sharing Games

Learning how to share with you is a safe place where they can grasp the concept from a practised adult rather than battling it out with their peers, will make learning this skill much more manageable!

6. Show Them How

Show your children how to interact with others. If they see you sharing, cooperating and being at ease in the company of others… they are more likely to mimic this behaviour through their play.

Social / Cooperative Play (4+ Years)

Here are 5 ways to support your preschooler through the final stage of play: social play.

What Can You Do?

Why Should You Do It?

1. Communicate

An important part of learning how to get along with others is clear communication. Make sure you give your little one clear instructions and encourage them to have positive interactions with you. Set up opportunities in everyday life where they can practice listening, making simple choices and taking turns in a conversation. 

2. Teach Cooperation and Taking Turns

Set up a situation where your child has to cooperate with you or another child. Doing puzzles, simple board games or joint craft activities are all excellent ways of teaching cooperation.

3. Model Empathy and Kindness

Demonstrate acts of empathy and kindness so that your child learns how to behave towards others who are upset and need some sympathy.

4. Include Them in Household Tasks

Including young children in household tasks is another great way to help them develop so many aspects of social and associative play skills. Through these tasks, they will learn cooperation, teamwork and how to communicate successfully. 

5. Praise Kind Acts

Encouragement and praise will go a long way to helping your children succeed socially.It will boost their confidence in their abilities and they will learn to praise and encourage others too!

REMEMBER: The stages of play do not work in isolation. Even when your little one has moved onto the next level of play, they may still engage in previous levels from time to time.

Other Stages Of Play To Be Aware Of

Within the final stage of social play, there are some other types of play to consider where your child can learn some very important life skills:

1. Competitive Play

Playing a board game or taking part in a team activity is a great way to learn about competitive play.

It teaches your child how to work as part of a team, take turns, follow rules and how to 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, as well as, develop cognitive and fine motor skills.

3. Fantasy/ Imagination Play

Fantasy and imaginative play are hugely important for the preschool age group. 

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

4. Physical Play

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

Spend time outside every day and nurture a love for being in the fresh air and being active. 

Offer them opportunities to kick a ball, run, jump and climb. 

As your children grow, encourage them to take part in sport activities, nature rambles and cycling!

5. Creative Play

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

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

Stages Of Play Recap

So, as you can see, play is vitally important to your child’s overall development and it is through the six stages of play that they learn will about the world around them and how to communicate with the people they encounter within it.

Offering and facilitating play opportunities that are relevant to the stages of play your little one is in will enable them to find their own way through life and develop life long skills!

So, encourage, support, love and enjoy the stages of play alongside your child, because after all…

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

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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