Stages of Play

Children’s play evolves as they get older. Mildred Parten developed a theory in the 1930’s that is still used today, although some of the details and timing have been re-interpreted over the years.

  1. Unoccupied Play—birth and up. Babies gaze at the world and absorb information, but don’t seem to be doing anything.
  2. Solitary Play—3 months and up. Babies or toddlers explore toys and their environment. They don’t really notice other children.
  3. Onlooker Play—9 months and up. They watch other children play but don’t join in.
  4. Parallel Play—18 months—3 years. Children play side by side. They often look like they aren’t paying attention to each other, but one will mimic what the other one is doing.
  5. Associative Play—3 years and up. Playing separately but on the same project (building a block city  together). Talking together, problem-solving together.
  6. Cooperative Play— 4 years and up. Playing WITH a friend. Some examples:
  • Dramatic / Fantasy play: Dress-up, school, etc. Pretending to be characters in the same scenario.
  • Competitive play: Sports, board games, tag, hide and seek.
  • Constructive play: Building with blocks, making a fort, sculpting a sand castle.

Note: Ages given are for kids playing together with peers. If they are playing with someone of a higher developmental level, they can achieve more. (e.g. a one year old can parallel play with an adult, a 2 year old may be able to do cooperative play with an older sibling.)

When watching children play on the playground, or in the classroom, can you identify each of these types of play?

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