The Ages and Stages of Play

Children pass through a few key stages as they develop their playing skills. Here's how to support them as they blossom into more creative and social little people.

A group of preschool kids are playing indoors at a daycare center
Photo: Getty Images

​​Nothing makes a parent happier than watching their child playing contentedly. But research has found that playing isn't just for fun: It builds some important skills for growing kids. Play teaches children about the world around them, helps them develop social skills, and deepens their cognitive and creative skills.

Still, when it comes to kids and play, it's common for parents to have tons of questions. You might be wondering if it's normal for your kid to prefer to play alone, and what it will look like once they start playing with other kids. You may also be unsure of what the best toys are for optimal development and to enhance your child's playtime. Read on to learn more about the ages and stages of play.

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What Are the Stages of Play?

One way that you can understand what's normal when it comes to play is to take a look at a theory set forth by a researcher named Mildred Parten. Parten looked specifically at how children develop play skills during their early years, between ages 2 to 5. She observed young children, and found that most children pass through 6 distinct stages as they flex their playtime muscles.

Unoccupied play

This is the stage that babies and young toddlers are in, where they interact with their environment in a random, exploratory manner. Think a crawling or toddling little one raiding your pot and pan cabinet, or playing with simple baby toys like blocks or stacking cups.

Solitary play

In this stage, kids are doing something that looks more like playing but they are doing it alone. This is called solitary play, or independent play. And while this may seem troublesome, don't worry: It's perfectly normal. Most young toddlers play this way.

Onlooker play

As your little one gets ready to play with others, they need to do a little research first! It's typical for them to go through a stage of quiet observation. This often looks to parents like a kid who is too shy or scared to play, but it's just part of the learning process.

Parallel play

This is the start of your child playing with others. But in this stage, they are playing near other children, not really with them. For example, two kids might be playing dolls or trains next to each other, but not directly interacting.

Associative play

This is the beginning of what is thought of as interactive play. This stage may involve more socializing than actual playing, but is an important step in the process.

Cooperative play

In this stage, children are actually able to share playtime with someone else, collaborating on imaginative stories or games with other children. This is also a time when you might see the first signs of conflict arise during play, as kids have to learn to cooperate and share. It's okay if there are bumps in the road during this process. That's common.

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Why Are The Stages of Play Important?

There are a few things to keep in mind as you watch your child progress through the different stages of play. First, it's important to remember that each child has their own timetable when it comes to moving through the stages. "While progression is often linear with age, children can move about between these stages based on comfort level or understanding," says Karen Burke, an educator of 15 years specializing in gifted education, and a simplifying coach for Organize With Ease.

Learning about the different stages of play can help you realize that certain troubling behaviors in your child are actually quite normal, Burke adds. "Understanding these stages can provide relief to parents who are concerned about their child's development," she says. "Recognizing your toddler wanting to play alone at the park is normal behavior, or your preschool 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."

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How Can Parents Support Their Kids Through These Stages?

"The best thing a parent can do for their child during these stages is to give them space and be patient with them," says Zishan Khan, M.D., a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist with Mindpath Health. As a parent, you can create opportunities for your child to explore the world around them, and offer them new developmentally appropriate toys, says Dr. Khan. You can also help them as they work through any difficult emotions attached to playtime.

As your child begins to play with others, you might need to take a supportive role. "Parents should stay close by and help them learn how to advocate for themselves, express their emotions in a healthy and proper manner, and teach them problem solving skills," Dr. Khan suggests. "Parents should also encourage their children to interact with others and also provide them with opportunities where they can meet new children."

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What Are Some Good Toys for Each Stage?

There are no hard and fast rules about what toys your child should play with as they move through the stages of play. "There are no specific toys that are indicated for each of the different stages, but it can be helpful for them to have access to a variety of materials and supplies, and for them to have things to play with that don't require multiple people to operate," Dr. Khan says.

Burke says that certain toys may be more appropriate than others during the different stages of play. Her recommendations include:

  • Unoccupied play: rattles, balls with textures, blankets
  • Solitary play: shape sorters, stacking cubes, cardboard books, blocks
  • Onlooker play: No particular toys are recommended, but if your child likes a toy they see another child playing with, you might want to get them one too!
  • Parallel play: A bin of blocks, art supplies, dolls, or toy cars
  • Associative/Cooperative play: These stages focus on socializing, so parents can seek out opportunities for children to play with other children. Options may include a play date at a local park or a neighborhood ball game.
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Are Puzzles Good for 2-Year-Olds?

Most 2-year-olds are able to use simple puzzles. At this age, you will not want to give your child a puzzle with 100 pieces! Puzzles with just a few brightly colored pieces work well for this age. You might want to sit with your child and help them do the puzzle a few times before they try it on their own. Puzzles are a great way to support fine motor skills, cognitive skills, and even early mathematical skills.

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At What Age Do Babies Begin to Stack Blocks?

As early as 15 months, your child will be able to stack a few blocks. Kids this age really love stacking a few blocks, knocking them right over, and then stacking them again. Blocks with patterns and vibrant colors are favorites. Building blocks are a great way to work on fine motor skills, as well as your child's solitary play skills.

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