In 1929, American sociologist Mildred Parten proposed a theory on the development of play in children. After studying children at play, she divided her observations into six different stages of play – unoccupied play, solitary play, onlooker play, parallel play, associate play, and cooperative play. Let’s take a closer look at what each of these stages of play involves and some toy recommendations for parents that can help encourage each type of play.
The first stage of play, typically seen in young babies from birth up to six months old, is the most basic and builds the foundation for the other five phases of play. Unoccupied play or sensory play can look very scattered and essentially consists of babies exploring materials around them with no real objective.
Babies waving their arms and legs around to understand how they work, or grasping for nearby objects to learn about their environment, are engaging in unoccupied play. It might not look like much, but these babies learn about the world around them and set the stage for future play.
For the youngest babies, toys for the unoccupied play stage are typically reasonably basic. An activity mat is a great choice because the baby can lie on her tummy and explore the blanket features with her hands and mouth, or lie on her back and reach for the toys suspended above. A shatterproof mirror is another great way to keep a baby occupied – put it on the floor while the baby is doing tummy time to indulge their curiosity.
After unoccupied play comes solitary play, which generally lasts until about two years old, children are beginning to engage with toys and other objects. Still, they are not yet interested in playing with others. Some parents may become concerned when they see their young toddlers playing alone with no particular interest in other children, but rest assured that this is a very normal developmental stage.
Adults should be discouraged from interfering with a child engaging in solitary play because learning to play alone is an important skill. It gives them the chance to explore freely, exercises their imagination, and practice new motor and cognitive skills. If you see your child struggling to make a decision while playing independently, try not to step in and offer suggestions, so they do not become dependent on adults to guide their thinking process. Sit back and see what they can come up with – you might be surprised by their creativity!
To encourage independent play, give them a safe space to explore – a playroom, a backyard, a childproofed living room – and open-ended toys. Battery-operated toys may keep them engaged for short periods of time, but toys like blocks, art supplies, and dolls are classics for a reason. Parents should keep in mind that even as the social play develops in later stages, solitary play does not disappear, and some children may still prefer to play alone at times. Every child is different, and it’s perfectly normal for children to continue to enjoy playing alone sometimes.
As older babies move into the stage of solitary play, the variety of toys that will hold their interest expands. It’s okay if young children don’t always use toys the way they may be intended – for example, an older baby might choose to put a wooden block in his mouth or hold one in each hand and bang them together. As their abilities develop, the ways they interact with toys will, too.
Often occurring alongside the end stages of solitary play, the onlooker stage typically occurs around age 2 – 2.5 years. Here, children spend most of their time observing other children play. They may stand or sit close to the other children and show interest in what they are doing and may even engage socially by asking questions of the other children without joining in their activity.
Parents may assume their child is feeling shy and want to encourage their child to join in with the others, but children are actually learning a lot about social interaction just by watching. They are mentally engaged without the potential intimidation of physically engaging with the group. Through their observations, children learn about different kinds of play, cooperation with others, and gaining information to use later when they feel ready to join the action.
This play stage mainly involves children observing and showing an interest in what others are doing. We suggest toys from solitary and parallel stages of play such as:
Around the age of 2.5 or 3 years old, children will begin to take their first steps towards interacting with others by engaging in parallel play. In this play stage, toddlers will be near each other, perhaps even playing with the same toy but not interacting collaboratively. In this stage, they learn to develop their observation skills, peer regulation, and how to get along with others. Think of this stage as warming up to collaborative play.
While older children will communicate directly and share ideas, toddlers in the parallel play stage will prefer to watch and listen to others while playing alongside them and not directly engaging in a shared activity. Children in this developmental stage have started to like being part of a group but are still too egocentric to collaborate in their play. This stage is an essential first step in forming social relationships with similarly aged peers.
In this play stage, children may copy adults or other children they see and begin to use symbols in their play – for example, pretending a stick is a sword. While they are still learning by trial and error, many children in this play stage will begin to exhibit some reasoning skills.
Older toddlers engaging in parallel play are beginning to use their imaginations, creating storylines and acting them out. Imaginative playsets, such as a toy farm or house that will allow a child to act out scenarios are perfect for this age group, and with an assortment of toy figures included, this is a toy that can grow with a child through multiple stages of play.
Another great toy for this stage is building toys, particularly interlocking blocks. A toddler-friendly version of big-kid (and adult!) classic Lego, toddlers will enjoy experimenting with putting these blocks together and taking them apart. This is another toy that will grow through stages of play, and its open-ended nature gives children limitless options.
After parallel play, the next stage is associate play, generally around 3-4 years of age. This stage consists of two or more children engaging in a separate activity but with the assistance and cooperation of others. An example of this might look like two children playing with toy trains, where they willingly share the trains amongst themselves and may ask questions about what the other person’s trains are doing while not actively having the two trains play a game together.
Associate play is different from parallel play in that while the children are playing separately from each other, at the same time, they are interested in what the others around them are doing. They will begin to interact by talking to each other and borrowing or taking turns with certain toys, but the play that occurs does not directly involve another child.
Children will improve their socialization skills through cooperation with others during this play stage. They will develop their language and problem-solving skills by asking questions such as ‘how’ and ‘why’ to other children engaged in the same activity. Children may begin to show preferences for certain playmates at this stage, forming the basis of genuine friendships that they will further develop through later stages of play.
Many of the toys from previous stages will still be popular in the associative play stage, with a few notable additions. To encourage multiple children to participate side by side in the same activity, consider larger toys that can accommodate multiple children. Train tables, play kitchens, and big dollhouses are great for this type of activity as they have enough variety that several children can play at the same time, while still encouraging open-ended imaginative play.
These bigger ticket items can be more expensive, but the good news is if you check your local resale sites, it’s often possible to find these items available in excellent condition for a fraction of the price.
After spending years getting used to being around other children and observing them, around age 4 or 5, most children will arrive at the cooperative play stage. This type of childhood play is most familiar to adults – when children play together in a somewhat organized group with a collective goal. You may also begin to see roles of leaders and followers established within a group. By this stage, speaking and listening skills are well established enough that children can communicate and share ideas. This type of communication is critical to cooperative play.
Somewhat paradoxically considering the name, cooperative play typically involves a lot of conflicts. It is entirely normal for a group of young children to have trouble getting along as they learn how to navigate peer relationships. Still, it’s crucial for them to experience it as several important life skills are learned here. For example, negotiation – who goes first? Which game shall we play? Who gets the red car, and who gets the blue one? Learning this type of give and take can be tricky for children, who still have an egocentric view of the world.
One of the aspects of play the most fraught with emotion are the concept of sharing and taking turns. To a child, ‘sharing’ can often look like giving away something they want. Parents should rest assured that it is normal for a child to struggle with sharing at this stage of development, and just because a four-year-old doesn’t want to share a favorite toy does not mean they will grow up to be selfish adults.
If your child struggles with sharing, try framing it as taking turns with a toy instead of giving it away. It can also be helpful to give children enough of a warning to prepare for sharing the toy emotionally. For example, you could tell your child, “Why don’t you give the car one more trip down the racetrack and then let your friend have a turn.” This works well in reverse as well – if your child is impatient to have their turn with a toy a friend doesn’t want to give up, knowing that after one more trip down the racetrack, they will get a turn can make the waiting more bearable.
Cooperative play can be helpful in teaching children the importance of following rules. Adults might be willing to let it slide when a child tries to manipulate the rules of a game, but their peers are often not as forgiving. While this can sometimes lead to hard lessons, children will quickly learn the importance of following a set of rules decided upon by the group. You can help by talking to your child about the emphasis on having fun rather than winning.
Negotiating, sharing, taking turns, and following rules are crucial social skills for children to learn as they become more independent and navigate the world with more independence. While the road to these skills can be bumpy at times, rest assured that children will figure it out eventually.
This play stage can cover a wide range of activities, from organized games such as hide and seek or soccer, to board games to working together to build a structure from blocks to large-scale imaginative play.
These toys are open-ended and allow children to establish their own rules for their games.