Stages of Play in Child Development

Parents often wonder if their child’s play behaviors signal stages of development. Psychological theorists believe children develop skills through play to support overall healthy development in core areas, including physical, cognitive, social, emotional, language and literacy. Mildred Parten, a sociologist and researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, categorized play development into six different stages that are not necessarily linear 4. In other words, some children may not develop directly from one stage to another.

Theory of Stages of Play

Parten was one of the first to study social play in young children. Her classic research was published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology in 1932. In her study, Parten observed children between ages 2 and 5 in pre-arranged periods. These periods of observation were systematically varied and lasted for one minute. Parten closely studied, recorded and categorized the types of play she witnessed.

Unoccupied Behavior

Unoccupied behavior is seen in very young infants. Parten believed these behaviors are not actually play but rather observing the environment for things of interest. The Centre for Learning Innovation describes these behaviors, which are familiar to many parents 3. For example, if nothing else interests your child at the moment, he may play with his own body parts – his hands or feet, for example – and verbalize to himself without seeking contact with others. His behavior may appear to be without purpose.

Solitary Play

Typically infants in this stage engage in behavior indicative of the name. Your child will play alone, seemingly unaware of others around him. Additionally, his attention span and interest in activities will change quickly.

Onlooker Behavior

Your child may exhibit onlooker behavior through various stages of development. You may observe it when your child is grouped near other children, when he may imitate the words or actions of others. He may also follow the actions of others without directly participating.

Parallel Play

Toddlers usually engage in parallel play. Parents can verify this stage when their child is in a setting relatively close to other children. Early Childhood News describes parallel play this way: As children talk, each is typically engaged in their own conversation 5. For example, your child may be talking about going to the circus, while another child interrupts and changes the subject. The SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina states that parallel play can be observed in the classroom 4. For example, parents may see children sitting together at one table, uninvolved with each other, while each is working on a different puzzle without attempting to affect each other's behavior.

Associative Play

As your child develops in the early pre-school years, he will begin to play and talk with others in dramatic play scenarios with a shared purpose that includes specific roles. You will recognize this stage in your child’s behaviors as, according to Early Childhood News, he will lend, borrow and take toys from others 5. At this stage he may consider his own viewpoint as most important and group work can be difficult -- but should be developed -- with opportunities for children to learn how to communicate their needs.

Cooperative Play

Occurring in the later pre-school years, this stage is the highest form of development in Parten’s research, when your child will agree with others on goals and fulfill roles, such as playing policeman, or nurse. In this level of development, your child will also sustain roles for the duration of the play session.