The Six Stages of Play Development
“What am I going to do with a newborn, it isn’t like they play?”
“My eighteen month old will not play with me, she just likes to sit by herself, what am I doing wrong?”
“My son, who is 3.5 years old, likes to play with other kids but only in a limited way or a short period of time, is he bored?”
Do any of these sound like things you have said? Do you every wonder what exactly you should be doing to stimulate your baby through play or how to ensure your preschooler is ready for the social demands of playing with others??
Believe me, when I say, you are not alone Parenting and play can be a mystery to a first time mom… shoot even to an experienced mother. Understanding the stages of play development can help alleviate some of those wonderings and ease your mind that you kiddo is totally normal. It can be frustrating to watch you baby struggle as they explore their new world and it can be challenging not to step in a fix a friendly quarrel with you toddler but rest assured these are all normal stages of play development. And each stage has its own milestones; some more noticeable than others.
Today we are going to break down the six stages of play development. We will talk about the ages of each stage, some milestones and behaviors you will see in that stage and lastly a few ways for you, as parents, to encourage and engage with them in each stage.
*Disclaimer* I am not a behavioral therapist or specialized nor a doctor. This is a general guide. If you have concerns or specific questions make sure you are having conversations with your child’s pediatrician.
SIX STAGES OF PLAY DEVELOPMENT
The stages are sorted by age beginning with newborn working up the age 4; you will notice that some overlap in age and that is due to the fact each stage is a sliding scale Some kids exhibit behaviors sooner or later than others (remember these are just general guidelines). You will also find common behaviors seen at each stage including what the play will “look” like and things to notice your little one doing. And finally I have given a few examples for ways to play with your kiddo at each stage of play.
Additionally, these are progressive in nature. Meaning your kiddo will most likely progress through each stage in the order you see them. One stage of play typically moves into the next without and so on. Very rarely will you see a child ‘master’ a stage of play out of order. So you can expect that once you see your child master most of the behaviors/actions in a particular stage they will transition into the next one naturally.
NAME: UNOCCUPIED PLAY
AGE: BIRTH- 3 MONTHS
BEHAVIORS/ACTIONS: At this stage of play you will see your newborn making movements with their limbs as they start to discover they have legs and arms and that they move. They will begin to learn how to use their bodies to satisfy their basic needs as well as learn more about their environment. At first it may seem a bit spastic when they start to move their limbs but this should smooth out as they learn more about how to use their legs and arms. While this may not seem like “play” in definition, it is indeed play. For a newborn they are absorbing so much information and learning what life is like outside of the womb that play is ingrained in learning about their limbs.
HOW TO ENGAGE: This is new stage for everyone, given it is the first, but it is just as important as any other in terms of play. Giving gentle leg and arm messages will help your baby become more aware of their limbs. When they begin to move and stretch gently pushing back to give a tiny amount of resistance can help them really start to understand how their limbs work. And gentle touch and soft words can start to build communication and vocabulary between you and your baby.
NAME: SOLITARY PLAY
AGE: BIRTH-2 YEARS
BEHAVIORS/ACTIONS: This stage is exactly as it sounds- solitary. This is the main point where kids begin to play alone, to engage with things by themselves and spend less time needing someone to entertain them. At this point in their development kiddos are exploring how toys and objects work, how to interact with their environment and getting a good sense of how the world works! You will see a big jump in how they interact during this stage as well. From birth to 2 your child will learn a great deal about how life really works; including toys. Sometimes you will see them using the toy in the manner it was intended and sometimes you may not but regardless of how they are playing they are learning and developing a great deal of knowledge. This play stage can seem long but when you think about how much they learn in just about two years it is clear this is a great stage of play.
HOW TO ENGAGE: Despite being called the solitary stage there is still plenty of opportunities for you to interact and engage with your child during this stage. Showing them how toys work, demonstrating different ways to use things and labeling what they are doing are great ways to engage with your kiddo during this stage. Additionally, letting them take the lead coupled with support from you can really make this stage of play extremely beneficial.
NAME: SPECTATOR/ONLOOKER BEHAVIOR
AGE: 2 YEARS
BEHAVIORS/ACTIONS: As your child moves out of the solitary play you will being to find them watching others play. And while this may seem like a regression as they are doing a little less playing of their own this is, yet, another great way for them to learn how to interact with their environment. As they watch others play (whether older or younger) they are able to learn from others and see new and unique ways to play. As observers they are learning just as much as interacting… they are little sponges soaking up all the new information they possibly can. In this stage kids really start to understand and see social norms in play, they see sharing and imagination take form. This is the time when they are filling their minds with ideas that will start to manifest themselves in the next few stages of play.
HOW TO ENGAGE: This is not a passive stage of play. While it may appear from your perspective that your kiddo has lost interest in their toys in fact what they are doing is learning new ways to engage with them. This stage of play is a great time to start introducing your kids to playgroups, mom and tot activities or even daycare. Because this stage of play focuses on observing others providing opportunities for your kiddo to be a spectator to other kids playing can really add depth and learning to this stage. It does not need to be full time or for hours on end but the greater exposure to varying activities the greater opportunities for learning!
NAME: PARALLEL PLAY
AGE: 2 YEARS +
BEHAVIORS/ACTIONS: In the natural progression of play this stage seems very logical. In the last two stages your kiddo has explored on their own and then watched fellow kiddos… now they combine those two. So you will see you child playing next to another friend but still playing/exploring by themselves; hence the phrase parallel play. It is essentially two kiddos sitting next to or near each other playing (often times with completely different toys). So there is still less engagement with their peers but they have a general interest to be next to others and play. Children may nor may not acknowledge each other, especially at the beginning of this stage, but over time they will begin to interact.
HOW TO ENGAGE: Like the previous stage providing opportunities for your child to be around others could really foster mastery of this stage of play. Allowing your kiddo to fully engage in parallel play; not being upset when they just sit next to someone. Working to provide amble chances for your kiddo to continue to explore different toys will simultaneously participate in parallel play can deepen their experience and really promote them towards the next play stage.
NAME: ASSOCIATE PLAY
AGE: 3-4 YEARS
BEHAVIORS/ACTIONS: This is the next natural progression from parallel play as it involves limited interaction with peers but begin to play in related activities. So if one child is playing cars another child may be playing trucks/trains sitting next to them. They begin to notice others around them and through the progression of this stage you will see them begin to interact with peers. During this phase they continue to investigate how their world works and what types of things they enjoy. They are continuously building preferences for play during these stages. While your child is in this stage of play you may see an increase in understanding of the others around them: this is their first real exposure to peer learning which is so powerful. You may see a few fights over toys and disagreements but these can be easily settled with giving choices for different toys. Given children are unlikely to be playing with the exact same toy provide additional choices can easy any disagreements.
HOW TO ENGAGE: At this stage you can engage and interact with them by demonstrating how to use the toys and proper ways to play with peers. While they are still just playing next to someone this is a great stage to start to teach them about sharing, caring and imagination! Consider a pretend game and allow your child to take the lead and encourage them to invite their friends to join in. Being creating games that involve more than one person to begin to show how play can develop into a two way interaction. Continuing to provide opportunities for play with peers is crucial at this point as it leads directly into the next stage of play.
NAME: COOPERATIVE PLAY
AGE:4 YEARS +
BEHAVIORS/ACTIONS: This is the stage you will begin to see play as an interactive exchange between two kiddos! This is the stage when play (as you visualize it to be) really takes shape. Your child will really start to engage and be interested in not only toys/activities but the person with whom they are playing. In this stage of play you begin to see a shift from not only an interest in toys but also an interest in people/friends. This is th stage of play where you children will start to make actual friend with whom they want to play. Additionally, this is when you will see some more creative play and imaginative play. Children really make a big leap from stage five (associated play) to this last stage of cooperative play but it is essentially the culmination of all the previous stages coming to life.
WAYS TO ENGAGE: This is the stage where you really get to play with you kiddo. Whether you are reenacting their favorite movie, show or book or even creating a whole new story this is the best time for you to help you child’s imagination grow. At this stage of play there really is no limit. As you will find you child requesting to play with a specific friend or two this is the time where play-dates really start to dominate your life (ha!). So enjoy getting involved and playing with your kiddo.
A FEW CLOSING THOUGHTS ON PLAY
Whether you are a new parent or a veteran mom the early stages of play development can seem boring or foreign. It seems weird that your child wants to sit next to someone and play or just watch from the opposite of the room but it is totally normally!! Additionally, I understand it can be hard to engage in a meaningful manner at each stage as ideas sometimes run dry so I wanted to end with a few additional ways to engage with your child at any stage of play development.
Play Pretend- no matter what you are doing or how old your child this is a great way to stimulate their play development
Put On A Puppet Show- use socks or pre-made puppets but this simple playtime activities is sure to fire up imagination and creativity for years.
Ask Questions- remember that conversation and communication will enhance your play time with your child. Ask them questions to get their brains thinking and processing
Special Time- finding a few minutes each day to play with your child- regardless of age- can be so beneficial to development through the stages of play. It shows your child you are interested and care about them.
With that I am signing off. Watching your child progress through each stage of play will be a joy and creating amazing memories!!
Resources Used in Writing This Article: