What are the 6 Stages of Play Development?
Play is one of the best-loved parts of childhood. Experts define “play” as any type of activity that your child finds fun and enjoyable. Regardless of whether play is highly structured or freestyle, it plays an important role in early childhood development.
Games and other fun activities help children hone important abilities that they will use throughout their lifetimes. Acquired skills like problem solving, creativity, assessing risks, and working cooperatively with others are all examples of how play benefits childhood cognitive development.
Different types of play can also strengthen key cognitive areas. For example, childhood who use their imaginations for make-believe or to “play pretend” in secure environments learn how to create narrative, assess different emotions, explore newfound interests, and adapt to diverse situations. Playtime with others teaches children how to share, take turns, resolve conflicts, and interact in different types of social situations.
As you can see, childhood play is far from frivolous. It is essential to personal, social, and cognitive development. There are six primary stages of play development that can help explain how children learn and grow through fun activities:
- Unoccupied Play (Age: Birth-3 Months). Some parents are surprised to learn that “play” begins at birth. During the first few months of life, babies learn to make motions and movements with their arms, legs, hands, and feet. They also observe plenty with their eyes. This is how infants start to make observations about the world around them and discover how their bodies can move within that world.
- Solitary Play (Age: Birth-2 Years). At this stage, it is perfectly normal for babies to want to play alone. They may not be quite interested in acknowledging other children yet. Instead, they may feel perfectly content to explore their “world” on their own and use newfound motor and cognitive skills.
- Spectator or Onlooker Play (Age: 2 Years). By age 2, toddler may watch other children but not make efforts to join them in play. This does not necessarily mean your child is “shy.” Instead, it is a normal part of play development. Children use this observation period to learn about the social rules of play, discover new play materials, and begin to understand how play fits into the larger world around them.
- Parallel Play (Age: 2+ Years). At this stage, children gradually play next to each other (without necessarily interacting yet). While their activities may never quite overlap, this side-by-side play works like a “warm-up” to future social interactions.
- Associate Play (Age 3-4 Years). As children begin more active, they also begin to “associate” more with others. This means that they will want to participate in activities related to other children around them. For example, a group of 3-year-olds may associate with each other by all playing on the same mini-playground equipment, but each will still engage in his or her preferred activity (swings versus slide, etc.).
- Cooperative Play (Age 4+ Years). At this point, children begin to take a noticeable interest in play with the other children around them. They will begin to incorporate other children as “players” in their play activities. This stage will also continue to require adult supervision as children learn to share, turn turns, and resolve conflicts. It is also a rewarding period for children as they learn to “make friends” and adopt group goals.
By understanding the six stages of play, parents and caregivers can learn to encourage healthy cognitive development by setting the scene for each state and providing a steady hand for support when needed. Incorporate play into your child’s routine to support his or her early childhood development. Contact the Warren Center if you have questions or concerns about your child’s progress through each stage of play.