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 crucial to keep in mind that a child’s play may reflect an earlier stage at any age.
By grouping play into the various stages helps us determine where they are in terms of their development. Six sets of the game are related to a child’s age and their growth and development.
Whilst a child may not progress in a specific chronological way, they move through each stage at a generalised age period. However, it is essential to note that a child’s progression may involve engaging in different stages depending on the physical environment and temperament. We have a wide range of playpens for your baby right here at My Baby Nursery.
There are five distinctly different types of play.
- Solitary Play: This is when your toddler plays alone. All children like solo play at times.
- Parallel Play: This is when your toddler plays beside another child without interacting. Your toddler will observe the other child and often imitate what they do. Toddlers enjoy parallel play.
- Imitative Play: This is when your toddler and another child copy each other. One toddler starts to jump, and soon they are both jumping. Or you are folding clothes, and your toddler tries to do the same.
- Social Bids: This is the first step toward having fun with others. Well before the age of 24 months, your toddler will offer toys, looks, or words to other children. It’s your toddler’s way of communicating.
- Cooperative Play: As your toddler gets older, he or she will start to play with other children. They may work together to build a block village or take stuffed animals to the doctor. Many children are not ready for this kind of play until they are 36 months of age or older.
Stages of Play
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 fundamental 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 sets the stage for future play exploration. Children seem to be making random movements with no apparent purpose, but this is the initial form of playing. During unoccupied play, everything is new to the child.
They understand the world around them. The baby tends to be in one place and making seemingly random movements and gestures with no fundamental 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 sets 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, all age groups need 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 children play alone, they learn to concentrate, think for themselves, develop creative ideas, and regulate emotions. All of these are essential things for a child to learn.
Playing independently is necessary and expected.
Babies and toddlers (birth to around two) are in this stage. This age is very busy exploring and discovering their new world. Every new object or situation that is introduced is a unique learning experience. A child is not withdrawn if they are at the Solitary play stage.
In no way are the children being ‘unsociable’, but rather, they learn through play. Even though ‘social play’ (playing together) develops at around the age of 3 or 4, it is essential 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 solo play and accurate 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 space 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 the 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 an onlooker play and is around 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 an onlooker and observer.
The child is learning by watching others. The child is interested in others but not quite ready to join in. Children who go through an onlooker (or “watcher”) stage get 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 learn peer regulation, observation skills, working with and getting along with others. It also helps a child to learn to work independently.
Parallel play is not only regular; it’s an essential first step in learning how to interact with others. Similar 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 keep 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 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 afar is very important to them. Check out our range of baby play tables and chairs at My Baby Nursery.
The critical element of parallel play is children play side-by-side and watch and listen to each other. It is a vital part of the socialisation process. They are interested in the same toys at this age, and both see the toys as belonging to the 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 even talk and interact with them instead of 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 organisation. Associative play begins during toddlerhood and extends throughout preschool age.
Associate play generally occurs around 3-4 years and consists of each child engaging in a particular 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 organiser.
All those engaged in the play are within a similar activity. There is no division of labour with this type of play, so there is no 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 genuine friendships and start to work cooperatively together.
It is generally during this stage that pretends 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. Overall, group goals organise the play. 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 play.
The child plays as part of a larger group with a collective goal, such as doing an art project or putting on a skit. During cooperative play, the role of leader and follower are often visible.
A child plays in an organised group to strive to attain some competitive goal, dramatise adult and group life situations, or play formal games, roles are assigned, and it is pretty planned and structured. Communication about the 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 using 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 and its purpose into a child’s world, the easier you may understand the concept. But that is not to say it will make sharing okay for the child all the time.
Tips: 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 another toy/game/activity. If you make it sound exciting, then they may happily give the initial toy up more quickly.
When a child wants something, they often wish to 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 give it up when 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 depends on the situation, but it is an excellent tool to try.
All children (and even us as adults) want to win the games we play and get pretty 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 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 games 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 participation that is the most crucial part. Reiterate that playing is more important than winning. This can help to reduce some unhappiness and sportsman-like behaviour at the end.
Talk to the child about how it is okay to not win all the time. Discuss how it is to play and have fun. Emphasise having a go is a vital element.
These tips will not miraculously make them okay with losing, but they will eventually teach them the concept of why they are playing.
It will also teach them empathy towards others as they will understand that 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. Children may find it challenging, especially if they feel they want to be the ‘boss’ and not panning out. Once a child can negotiate, share, take turns, and follow the rules.
A child who can deal will be well on their way to navigating future things in life.
Tips: A child learning the art of negotiating is of enormous benefit to their world. It will enable them to deal with their emotions and develop empathy towards others and many other skills. A child can learn to negotiate on a day-to-day level. Giving choices or negotiating about the little things so that it isn’t a big deal what the outcome is.
A child learns to master critical new social skills, such as sharing, taking turns, obeying rules, and negotiating. These are all challenging behaviours for a young child to learn.
What to Expect from Toddler Play
Toddlers are full of energy. Opening and closing drawers, turning containers upside down, and hiding things in all sorts of places – these are all ways that toddlers play, explore their world and learn.
Unstructured play is important at this age.
This is a play that just happens, depending on what makes your child’s interest. For example, sometimes your child might feel like doing something active, like dancing. Other times he might enjoy a quiet activity like drawing.
Structured music or gym classes can be fun, but your child doesn’t need them.
Your child just needs time to play – and a safe home environment to explore and play in.
It’s good to let your child lead play when she wants to and when it’s safe and practical.
This teaches your child about making decisions and allows her to use her imagination. When your child is leading play, you can ask questions that encourage her to tell you about what she’s doing – for example, ‘What are you making in that pot?’
Your toddler’s play will probably vary in pace and focus. Sometimes he’ll look at something quickly and move on. Other times he’ll stop and explore an object. This means that simple activities with a toddler – like collecting the mail – might take a bit longer than you think.
By the time your toddler is three, she might be enjoying ‘pretend’ games like dress-ups and playing house. This imaginative and creative play helps your toddler express and explore complex emotions like frustration, sadness and anger.
You might notice that your toddler wants to play the same game or read the same book again and again. Repeating activities is how toddlers master skills and understand what to expect in certain situations.
Toddler Play Ideas and Toddler Games
Play is not only fun – it’s also how children learn. You’re still the best toy for your toddler to play with – and the critical thing is still spending time playing with your child. My Baby Nursery is your one-stop baby product store.
For children older than two, screen time can be a fun learning experience. But your child needs to have a healthy approach to screen time. This means balancing screen time with other activities that are good for development, like outdoor play, pretend play, reading and social play.