Play is a vital part of child development, but children of different ages do not play in the same way. This is because play occurs in stages that reflect where children are socially, cognitively and emotionally at different ages. Your child may reach each stage before after other children in his age group, but this is normal because every child is different and develops at their own rate.
According to Aha! Parenting, infants engage in what’s called “onlooker” or “observant” play up to about 12 months of age. They prefer to sit on your lap and watch other children at play, rather than engage in the play themselves. Infants are fascinated by those around them, and learn who they can rely on to feed, entertain and soothe them by observing.
Around the age of 12 months, children begin focusing on learning about and engaging in the world through their senses. Solitary play, which occurs when your child plays alone even when around other children, allows children to explore the world by touching, tasting and grabbing at toys, people and objects. According to Child Care Resources, children discover relationships between their bodies and the environment and learn about cause and effect through solitary play.
Around the age of 2 to 3 years, children become more aware of the people in their world, and move from solitary play to parallel play. According to Child Care resources, toddlers at this stage enjoy exploring their environment. As they play independently with toys, they start to see themselves as part of a social group, yet still remain egocentric in their thinking. Children at this stage enjoy playing next to other children with the same game or activity, but they may not interact or play together. For example, two toddlers may play with building blocks at the same time, but they typically don't talk about what they're doing or build a project together. Instead they work on building their own structure separate from each other.
Three-year-olds develop more interest in their peers and have more skills to interact successfully with other than they did at 2 years of age. At this point, most children will engage in associative play. While children at this stage may not work together at the same game, they like to watch and imitate those around them. For example, two children at this stage may use the same clothes to play dress up, and they may discuss what they’re doing, but they don’t play together to create a single game or imaginative narrative. One may mention that she is going to wear the pink dress, but her words are more of a monologue than a dialogue.
According to the British Columbia Ministry of Health, school age children typically have social skills that children younger than 3 years have not yet acquired, and begin to form friendships as they enter the stage of cooperative play. At this stage children finally begin talking and working together during play. For example, the two towers that toddlers build independently during parallel play become a single tower during cooperative play. The dress up acted out independently during associative play becomes a dramatic play story acted out together. Children at this stage of development learn to compromise and will seek help from adults to resolve conflicts. They are able to play elaborate games with rules, and can enjoy organized sports or board games.