Remember what being a kid was like? Wow, that was fun — we just played all day! However, what our adult brains likely don’t remember is all of the mental energy put into our childhood playtime. After all, we were learning how to interact with the world around us. Our little brains were working overtime, and now our children are doing the same thing.

Back in the late 1920s, sociologist and researcher Mildred Parten laid out the six stages of play development for children. Her research has helped educators understand how children learn how to play, and continues to help parents everywhere stop worrying that little Timmy doesn’t seem to be interested in playing with the other kids in the sandbox yet. There are stages to the process and every child learns them differently.

Curious about the six different stages of play and what you might expect for your children’s playtime? Read on!

1. Unoccupied Play 

Between birth and three months, babies engage in what’s called Unoccupied Play. No need for fancy toys, or even any toys at all, at this stage. During this time, babies are alternating their time between sleeping, eating, and figuring out how their tiny bodies work so you can put away the educational flashcards for now.

 

2. Solitary Play

Babies and young toddlers will then move on to Solitary Play. They have their blocks, their toy cars, a pile of Tupperware lids, and, if we’re being honest, any other accessory that looks appetizing. 

It’s not that children are against the idea of playing with friends at this point, they are just indifferent to them! Well, unless another child takes their shovel in the sandbox, then that indifference may turn to rage and a teaching moment, but it’s all part of the process.

 

3. Spectator Behavior

Around two years old, your child may move onto the Spectator Behavior stage of play. This is when they begin to notice other children playing but they aren’t quite ready to join in. 

If your two-year-old has ever stared down another child who’s playing with the train table at the library, they aren’t being passive aggressive or judgey, just curious. You can save the “don’t stare” lesson for another day.

 

4. Parallel Play

The next stage of play for toddlers is Parallel Play. During this stage of play development, two little ones will sit side by side doing an activity but they won’t engage with one another. Toddlers are cool with having a friend nearby who is also feeding a baby doll, but they aren’t quite ready to chat about where to find the best imaginary baby food or discuss the pros and cons of pretend cloth diapering. 

Parallel Play can also often look like two young children playing with completely different toys while sitting near each other. Totally normal and important! Children are learning to share space with one another and are the early stages of developing social skills.

 

5. Associate Play

As toddlers turn into preschoolers, they begin to engage in Associate Play. This stage of play sounds a bit like working alongside colleagues at the office. “Yes, my Associate and I will be joining you at the 11:00am meeting, please bring the Marshall memo.” 

In real life, it’s actually a lot like that! Your little one’s buddies may be like coworkers at the playground, playing alongside each other and content to be together, but also working on their own projects, er, playtime activities.

 

6. Cooperative Play

The final stage of play development is Cooperative Play and for some children this will start around age four. Cooperative Play is when children are engaging with one another, pretending together, and coming up with their own rules and norms for playtime. 

This stage is a lot of fun, but can also be challenging for children as they learn how to share, take turns, and communicate their feelings. (That can be hard for adults too!) These are all good challenges though and an opportunity for your children to learn the ropes of play, and life!


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