6 Stages Of Play (The Fundamental Way To Raise Healthy Kids)

By Paula McLaren •  Updated: 07/25/22 •  11 min read  •  Toddler » Toddler Play

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

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


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 lots of arm, hand, feet and leg movements as they learn how their bodies work and explore 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. 

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.

REMEMBER: 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 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.

During the 3rd of the 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.

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

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.

Parallel play is a very important transitional phase in the healthy development of play for your child as it is the crossroads between more solitary and more social types of play.

REMEMBER: 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. However, this is the perfect time 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 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.

NOTE: Children will not communicate a great deal during associative play and their goal will still be very self-centred, but they will still have a lot of fun regardless!

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.

It teaches your child how to work as part of a team, take turns, follow rules and 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 teaches your child to problem solve, try again when a construction fails, and develop cognitive and fine motor skills.

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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.

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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.

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How To Support Your Children Through The 6 Stages Of Play

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)

Solitary Play Examples (3-24 Months)

Onlooker Play Examples (2+ Years)

Parallel Play Examples (2½+ Years)

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 up a toy they are playing with unless they are ready to… It will only end in tears.

Associative Play Examples (3-4 Years)

Cooperative Play Examples (3-4 Years)

Why Is Play Important?

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

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

And these 6 stages of play will boost every aspect of your child’s development from their creativity, to their imagination, dexterity, physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. 

It also forms their fundamental understanding of 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.

REMEMBER: These 6 stages of play do not work in isolation. In fact, they function in a collaborative way that builds in layers to raise a healthy and confident individual.

Stages Of Play Recap

These are the 6 Stages Of Play that your child will progress through as they grow:

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

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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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