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Stages of Play Development: What they are and why they matter

In this post: We’ll discuss Mildred Parten’s 6 stages of play development and why they are important when it comes to understanding child development and parenting young children.

Mildred Parten Newhall was an American sociologist who was credited as one of the first researchers to investigate play and how it shapes childhood development.  Her research suggested that there are 6 varieties of play children engage in: 

  • Unoccupied play (birth – 3 months of age)
  • Solitary play (birth – 2 years of age)
  • Onlooker play (age 2)
  • Parallel play (2+ years of age)
  • Associative play (3-4 years of age)
  • Cooperative play (4+ years of age).
little girl engaged in solitary play stage of play development, pretending to be a doctor with stuffed bear.

While progression is often linear with age, children can move about between these stages based upon comfort level or understanding.  

Let’s dive into what each of the 6 stages of play development can look like.

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Mildred Parten’s 6 Stages of Play

Focusing on children ages 0 months to 6 years old, Parten’s research demonstrated that children learn and develop problem solving skills through play.

Unoccupied play

A child exploring the world around them without a sense of purpose or organization.  This stage is often observed in infancy through young children.

Solitary play

Occurs when a child is engaged in play while alone, exploring their surroundings and its objects.. This type of play helps children explore interests and make sense of the world around them.  This could look like a toddler playing alone with playdough, rummaging through a bin of loose parts,  or running a train along its tracks.

baby girl engaging in the solitary play stage of play development with a stacking ring tower

Onlooker play (also referred to as spectator play)

A child is observing others play without partaking in the activity themselves.  When a child observes other kids at the playground, but isn’t interested in joining in, they are experiencing onlooker play. 

Parallel play

When a child plays similarly to other children, but is not actively engaging in play with others (such as a child playing with dump trucks in a sandbox while other children are also pouring and dumping sand nearby).  This play stage is critical for future stages, as observing how others play and engage helps the child build a comfort with engaging with others during play.

young boy and girl engaging in Parten's parallel play stage pf play development as they scoop sand in a sandbox

Associative play (also called adjacent play)

When a child begins engaging with the other children, focusing more on the social aspect of the game or activity versus the physical toy or objects being played with.   In this stage, children are often seen playing together in groups, but not engaging in the same activities or not playing in an organized way.  This is an important shift in the child’s play stages, as they are now using the skills they have observed and learned in the previous 4 stages to engage in social play with others.

Cooperative play

When a child engages with both the children playing and the organized activity they are playing.  For example, a child playing hide and seek with a group of other children or playing Red Rover at recess.  This stage of play requires lots of social skills, conflict resolution, and emotional understanding, so arguments or conflicts are often seen in this stage of play.

kids running together outside while engaging in the cooperative play stage of parten's play theory

Why the stages of play development matter

Understanding these stages can provide relief to parents who are concerned about their child’s development.  Recognizing your toddler wanting to play alone at the park is totally normal, or your kindergarten student spinning in circles in the outfield instead of engaging in baseball practice is developmentally appropriate, may ease the concern parents feel about their child’s development. Children naturally progress through these stages of play at their own pace.

? Organize With Ease was featured in Parents Magazine! ?

Be sure to check out the article where we talk more about Mildred Parten Newhall’s Play Theory.

How to support the stages of play development

Parents can support their children during play by giving them opportunities to engage in free, unstructured play.  Invite them to participate in activities or games without forcing them to engage in a stage beyond their comfort zone.  It’s great to provide invitations to play through offering new experiences or toys.  Novelty is your friend here. Even if a child doesn’t engage in a higher level of play at the time, creating novelty through new experiences can lead to increased comfort and a willingness to try something new in the future.  

Break out some new materials or mediums your child hasn’t seen much of before, or take them out to experience a new place or a walk in nature.  Let them take the lead and make their own choices  when it comes to their play. Allow them time and space to engage with toys or play materials however they choose.  This will allow them to relax and more fully engage in their play.

Kids constantly complaining they’re bored even when they have a playroom stuffed full of toys?

Discover how open-ended toys are the magical secret to less stuff and more play!

Toys and the stages of play development

Regardless of the stage of play your child is demonstrating, there are a few key things you can do to support their play and development.

First, ensure your child has plenty of unstructured, free play time.  Creating space for your child to explore the world, nurture their interests, and deepen their creativity.

When it comes to toys, aim to provide as many open-ended toys as possible.  Open-ended toys are toys that have no innate purpose (such as blocks, dolls, or animal figurines).  These toys are great for development because the child must bring their own creativity and imagination to the toys.  Other great open-ended toys include magnetic tiles or marble runs, art supplies, play couches, play scarves, or stacking toys.

Toy Suggestions for the 6 Stages of Play Development

Unoccupied play

Rattles, balls with textures, or a blanket are great toys for children exploring and manipulating the world around them.

Solitary play

Observe the toys your child enjoys and look for other toys that meet that play style.  For instance, if your child likes toy cars, they will likely also enjoy trains and tracks. Additionally, toys such as shape sorters, stacking cubes, cardboard books, or blocks.       

Onlooker play

A great way to engage your child during this stage is to just ask questions about what they are noticing.  If available, invite your child to play with whatever toys the other children are engaging with to promote parallel play.

Parallel play

Open-ended toys that children can play with independently are great options for parallel play.  For instance, a bin of blocks makes for great parallel play, as each child can be creating their own structure while engaging with the same toys.  Other options could be magnetic tiles, craft supplies, dolls, or toy cars.  

Associative & Cooperative play

These stages of play focus on engaging socially while playing, so parents can support this stage by seeking out opportunities for their child to socialize and play with other children around their child’s age.  This could be offering a play date at a local park with friends or rallying the neighborhood kids for a wiffle ball game. Games or group challenges can also support these play stages, as they encourage children to work together, organize themselves, and accomplish specific objectives.

Supporting your child through the stages of play development

Play is the way kids make sense of the world, strengthen their social skills, and increase their cognitive development.  By recognizing Mildred Parten’s 6 stages of play development, parents can support their children as they explore their world through play. 

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