The power of play – Part 1: Stages of play

Play is important work in early childhood. Learn more about how the power of play can help children learn important skills and prepare them for the world.

Play is an important part of a child's healthy development.
Play is an important part of a child's healthy development.

While play is often seen as something frivolous that children do to pass the time, play is an incredibly important part of a child’s healthy development. Play is children’s work. Through play, children learn academic skills like math, science, reading, language and literacy. They learn social skills like effective communication, conflict resolution, problem solving and cooperation. Maybe most importantly, they learn about themselves – they get to know their personalities including their likes and dislikes, strengths and interests. Through play, children learn where they fit in in the world.

Researcher Mildred Parten identified these six stages of play that children progress through. It’s important to note that each child develops at his or her own pace, so children of the same age may not show exactly the same types of play.

Parten’s six stages of play

  1. Unoccupied play. Children are relatively still and their play appears scattered. This type of play builds the foundation for the other five stages of play. Unoccupied play looks like babies or young children exploring materials around them without any sort of organization. This stage allows children to practice manipulating materials, mastering their self-control and learning about how the world works.
  2. Solitary play. This type of play occurs when children entertain themselves without any other social involvement. Children in solitary play may not notice or acknowledge other children. Adults might worry about children playing alone, but actually solitary play is very normal. When children engage in solitary play, they are able to explore freely, master new personal skills like new motor or cognitive skills, and prepare themselves to play with others.
  3. Onlooker play. Children who sit back and engagingly watch other children playing, but do not join in are onlookers. The active part of their play is watching others. Sometimes it’s easy to think children engaged in onlooker play might be lonely or scared to engage with other children, when in fact it is a very normal part of play development. Just as adults “people watch” at the coffee shop, children learn a lot by watching others. They learn about the social rules of play and relationships, they explore different ways of playing or using materials and they learn about the world in general.
  4. Parallel play. This occurs when children play next to each other, but are not really interacting together. For example, two children may drive cars on the carpet next to each other, but their play does not actually overlap. In this stage, children are not really engaging in a social exchange. Think of this stage like a warm up exercise – children work side by side on the same activity, practicing skills and learning new methods to engage together.
  5. Associative play. This type of play signifies a shift in the child. Instead of being more focused on the activity or object involved in play, children begin to be more interested in the other players. Associative play allows children to begin practicing what they have observed through onlooker and parallel play. They can start to use their newfound social skills to engage with other children or adults during an activity or exploration.
  6. Cooperative play. This is play categorized by cooperative efforts between players. Children might adopt group goals, establish rules for play. It’s important to remember cooperation is an advanced skill and can be very difficult for young children. Ironically, cooperative play often involves a lot of conflict. This is normal. It is sometimes difficult for young children to share, take turns and negotiate control in these types of play scenarios. You can support children engaged in cooperative play by staying close and helping them learn healthy expression of emotions and teach them problem solving skills.

Michigan State University Extension has tips to help you support your child through these six stages of play.

  • Set the scene. Create opportunities for your child to explore. Whether it is pulling out fun new materials to explore, taking your child to a museum or simply walking around the block. Help your child discover new places, materials and people to play with.
  • Hold on to your expectations. Instead of worrying about how you think your child should be playing or what you expect them to do with a certain toy or in a specific situation, let your child decide. When children have control of a situation, they learn to listen to their own cues and promptings, making learning developmentally appropriate for them, and also fun and engaging.
  • Support and guide. Just like parents support a child learning to walk by providing a steady hand when needed, being present and engaged in your child’s play gives you the opportunity to support them when they need it. Your child might need help learning a new skill or emotional support exploring a new environment, or they may need new ideas and inspiration from their favorite adult. As your child grows and develops, your support can help them reach new heights.

Just like adults need education and resources to learn how to be good at their jobs, children need the same support to support their job of playing. Along with practical materials like toys and games, children need encouragement, engagement and lots and lots of time to play.

For more information about the purpose of play, play and learning, positive discipline, child development, academic success or parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website. Also, don’t forget to check out the upcoming articles in “The power of play” series!

Other articles in this series

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