A child’s healthy development revolves heavily around play. Play allows children to explore the world around them through imagination and creativity while encouraging physical, cognitive, and social-emotional development. As they grow, children evolve the way they play to coordinate with their level of development.
Researcher Mildred Parten identified six stages of play that children progress through in their first 5 years of development.
1. Unoccupied play. This type of play sets the foundation for the stages that follow. It’s a period of time where babies and young children take part in unstructured play—mostly by exploring materials around them without any sort of agenda. This play is scattered, however it lays the groundwork for manipulating toys and learning about their world.
2. Solitary play. This type of play occurs when little ones are exploring on their own. Without anyone from the outside world manipulating their environment, children involved in solitary play can explore freely, allowing them to unlock problem-solving skills, cognitive skills, and much more. It also prepares them to play with others.
3. Onlooker play. Onlooker play involves children watching others playing without joining in. Although it might seem concerning that children are not participating in play, people naturally learn from watching others. It allows children to observe social skills, relationships, and other forms of play manipulation.
4. Parallel play. This type of play involves children playing near or beside one another without interacting directly. For example, two children might be playing with blocks on the rug without necessarily building something together. This stage really guides children to move into the next stage of social play.
5. Associative play. As children grow, their interest in the object or game itself becomes less so. Their focus shifts to the people around them. This is their time to take all their skills from previous play and apply them to a social situation. Children can start to enjoy their play with others.
6. Cooperative play. As the name suggests, this stage is about working with and cooperating with others during play. This stage can be difficult for children as they are still navigating how to share, take turns, and problem solve. It’s important that children continue to learn positive emotional expression as well as appropriate ways to navigate social interaction during cooperative play.
Remember, these stages are guideposts—every child’s development is unique. Make sure you are supporting your child through every stage of play. To learn more about Parten’s 6 stages of development, please visit MSU Extension Early Childhood Development.