As children develop, their play evolves too. Children pass through these stages as they grow, becoming capable of more interactive play as they develop.
There are several types of play that children will progress through during their development. It is important to keep in mind that at any age, a child’s play may reflect an earlier stage
By grouping play into the various stages helps us to determine where they are at in terms of their development.
Six stages of play are related to a child’s age and their growth and development.
Whilst a child may not progress in a specific chronological way they progress through each stage at a generalized age period. Although it is important to note that a child’s progression may involve engaging in different stages at different times depending on the physical environment and their individual temperament.
Stage 1: Unoccupied play (0-12 months): This play is most commonly observed in babies and infants. It is where a child tends to be in one place and makes seemingly random movements and gestures with no real objective. These movements are an attempt to learn about and move within their environment. Despite seeming like this is not a stage of play it is as it is setting the stage for future play exploration.
Children seem to be making random movements with no clear purpose, but this is the initial form of playing.
During unoccupied play everything is new to the child.
They are understanding the world around them. The baby tends to be in one place and making seemingly random movements and gestures with no real objective. These movements are an attempt to learn about and move within their environment. Despite seeming like this is not a stage of play it is as it is setting the stage for future play exploration.
Stage 2: Solitary play (0-2 years): Is independent, engaging in activities alone. The child plays alone with toys.Solitary play occurs due to their limited social, cognitive, and physical skills, they haven’t had the opportunity to grow, learn and develop yet. However, it is important for all age groups to have some time to play by themselves.
Solitary play is one of the first play stages. Playing alone is a natural step in the development of children’s play behaviour for a 0-2 year old.
As children learn through play and in this stage they have not yet learnt enough from relationships to be able to play together with others.
Playing alone gives children the time they need to think, explore and create. When a child plays alone, they learn to concentrate, think for themselves, comes up with creative ideas, and regulate emotions. All of these are important things for a child to learn. Playing independently is important and normal.
Babies and toddlers (birth to around two) are in this stage. This age are very busy exploring and discovering their new world. Every new object or situation that is introduced is a new learning experience.
A child is not unsociable if they are at the Solitary play stage. In no way are the children being ‘unsociable’ but rather they are learning through play.
Even though ‘social play’ (playing together) develops at around the age of 3 or 4 it is important to note that solitary play does not disappear.
Solitary active play includes playing make-believe while playing alone, or with an imaginary companion. It is a bridge between solitary play and true social play. This includes repeated simple activities with or without toys or other objects, for example, banging two wooden blocks together, or filling a bucket with sand and pouring it out.
Solitary imaginative play can strengthen healthy development as a child alone in his or her room using an action in an imaginary story displays abstract thinking, language and creativity.
Stage 3: Onlooker play: (18 months-2½years) This stage of play involves random exploration. A child learns through personal interaction with people and objects within the environment. They don’t participate in the play around them. They spend much of their time watching other children in their play. They may even talk to them but they don’t interact or join in with them. Although the child may ask questions of the players, there is no effort to join the play. This type of play usually starts during toddler years but can take place at any age.
As a child grows they will start to notice others around them during their play. This is considered Onlooker play and is around the 2 -2½ years.
In this stage the child spends most of their time observing, watching other children play.
The onlooker is observing particular children and/or groups of children. They will be close to the other children but just not join in. They will stand or sit within speaking distance from other children purely with the motivation to observe their play. The child may engage in forms of social interaction, such as conversation, asking questions, giving suggestions, without actually joining in the activity. They don’t overtly enter the play. They are not an active participant in the play around them rather a onlooker and observer.
The child is learning by watching others. The child is interested in others but not quite be ready to join in. Children who go through an onlooker (or “watcher”) stage get to be mentally engaged without the potential intimidation of actually being in the thick of things.
This stage of play often runs concurrently with Solitary play. This is also commonly known as spectator play.
Stage 4: Parallel play (2½ -3 years): Children play side by side with similar toys, but there is a lack of group involvement. They play independently but will play next to other children and they may use their toys.
Parallel play helps children to learn peer regulation, observation skills, working with and getting along with others. It also help a child to learn to work independently.
Parallel play is not only normal, it’s an important first step in learning how to interact with others. Parallel play is a play stage that they will go through where children are near each other but not playing with each other. This play stage is generally from 2-3 years of age.
For example: There are two 18 month olds with similar toys near each other in the same room. They don’t seem to pay much attention to each other. They have noticed each other just are not at the stage to play ‘together’.
Unlike older children, who interact and communicate directly, toddlers play alongside one another. While they may appear to be playing independently, kids this age are keeping an eye on each other. They like being part of a group, but they are still egocentric, so they don’t necessarily interact.
Parallel play is often a first step in forming strong social relationships outside of the family. A child likes being around other children of their age but will be engaged in similar activities or totally different activities to children around them. Whilst it may appear that they don’t care about the presence of the other children their presence is key to this stage and their development. Additionally, just try separating them and you will see this contact from a far is very important to them.
The key element of parallel play is children play side-by-side, and watch and listen to each other. It is a vital part of the socialization process. At this age they are interested in the same toys and both see the toys as belonging to theme.
Stage 5: Associative play (3-4 years): Involves a group of children who have similar goals. They will play with other children using the same equipment and will even talk and interact with them but not actually playing with them. Children in associate play do not set rules, and although they all want to be playing with the same types of toys and may even trade toys, there is no formal organization. Associative play begins during toddlerhood and extends throughout the preschool age.
Associate play generally occurs around the 3-4 years and consists of each child engaging in an separate activity but with the assistance and cooperation of others.
A child in the associative stage plays with other children, however while they engage in play with others they are not yet at the stage to participate in groups. By this we mean that they will play together in the same game/activity but not necessarily work together.
Children will begin to interact through talking, borrowing and taking turns with toys, but each child acts alone. The communication concerns the common activity generally confined to borrowing and loaning of play materials.
During associate play the more mature child soon emerges as the leader or organizer.
All those engaged in the play are within the similar activity. With this type of play there is no division of labour, so there is no organization of the activity around materials, goal, or product, it is without that specific purpose.
They are developing friendships and preferences for playing with some. It is in this stage that they begin to make real friendships and start to work cooperatively together.
It is generally during this stage that pretend play is at its height.
Stage 6: Cooperative/Collaborative play (4-5+ years): Begins in the late preschool period. They play in a group of one or more working together. The play is organized by overall group goals. There is at least one leader, and children are definitely in or out of the group.
As children progress through the play stages they around 4 or 5 years old come to the cooperative play stage.
In the later preschool years children have acquired the skills to interact together for the purpose of play.
The child plays as part of a larger group that has a collective goal such as making an art project or putting on a skit. During cooperative play, the role of leader and follower are often visible.
A child plays in a group that is organized for the purpose of a result, striving to attain some competitive goal, dramatizing situations of adult and group life, or playing formal games, roles are assigned and it is quite planned and structured.
Communication about play is the critical skill of cooperative play
Let’s look closer at the typical types of collaborative play:
When a child wants something, the thought of giving it up to someone else sometimes seems unbearable. Learning to share is confusing for the child more complex by the way in which we use the word ‘share’. They often don’t fully comprehend the meaning of the word as to them it means giving something they want up. The earlier you can integrate the word share along with its meaning into a child’s world the easier you may find they understand the concept. But that is not to say it will make sharing okay for the child all the time.
Tip: When you are negotiating with a child to share sometimes the art of distraction is good. Distract with something else that sounds too good not to move onto to another toy/game/activity. If you make it sound exciting then they may happily give the initial toy up more easily.
When a child wants something, they often want it immediately and don’t like to wait or for that matter take turns in getting what they want. Taking turns means that they receive delayed enjoyment. It is hard for a child to see beyond wanting it now or having to give it up when they are playing with it. Explaining that they will have another turn sometimes is not enough for the child.
Tips: Make it fun giving up the toy. Make the game fun. A win-win is more likely for both children involved.
Distract the child who is giving it up if they are not content taking turns with something else or even see if you can share rather than take turns. This may or may not be acceptable to either child and sometimes it works while at other times it does not. It really depends on the situation but it is a good tool to try.
All children (and even us as adults) want to win the games we play and can get quite competitive. Some will do whatever they can to win, even if they have to cheat a little bit. As adults we may indulge them, even if just initially, but generally their peers will not, resulting in sometimes tough lessons on the importance of following rules.
Tips: The earlier you can encourage good sportsmanship the easier it is to have a more successful end to a game. By everyone shaking hands and saying good game allows each child to feel valued as a member of the game rather than just the traditional winner and loser roles.
Talk to your child before the game about the rules. Reinforcing it is how you play. Highlight it is the participation that is the most important part. Reiterate that playing is more important than winning. This can help to reduce some unhappiness and unsportman-like behaviour at the end.
Talk to the child about how it is okay to not win all the time. Discuss how it is the playing and having fun. Emphasize having a go is the vital element.
These tips will not miraculously make them okay with losing but it will eventually teach them the concept of why they are playing. It will also teach them empathy towards others as they will understand that at times you win and other times you lose and the feelings for both and to appreciate the ‘losers’ feelings.
Who gets to go first? How do you decide which game to play? Who gets to be the ‘boss’? Collaborative play requires a child to give as well as take. It requires the child to compromise on what they want. This is hard to accept. Learning to negotiate can be tricky for a child. A child may find it challenging especially if they feel they really want to be the ‘boss’ and it is not panning out that way. Once a child can negotiate, share, take turns, and follow rules. A child who can negotiate will be well on their way to navigating future things in life.
Tips: A child learning the art of negotiating is of huge benefit to their world. It will enable them to deal with their emotions and develop empathy towards others as well as many other skills. A child is able to learn to negotiate on a day-to-day level. Giving choices, or by negotiating about the little things so that it isn’t a big deal what the outcome is.
A child learns to master important new social skills, such as sharing, taking turns, obeying rules, and negotiating. These are all very difficult behaviours for a young child to learn