Types and Stages of Play Important for your Child’s Development

Types and Stages of Play Important for your Child’s Development

23 May

Play is something in which humans of all ages engage in. No matter where you live in the world, no matter what culture you’re a part of, play is important.


Benefits of play

Play is essential for children because it contributes to their physical, social, emotional and cognitive development. It offers opportunity for parents and children to engage, and gives children a break from the modern, hurried lifestyle – homework, co-curricular activities, changes in family structure, the list goes on.

Play is the business of childhood, allowing free rein to experiment with the world. Despite the fun associated with play, there also a lot of work involved – problem solving, skill building, overcoming physical and mental challenges. This encourages independence, self-esteem, creativity, and it gets their energy out.

Play is so important, that it’s been recognised by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a ‘right of every child’. But what exactly is ‘play’ and how do you make sure your child gets enough of it?

Stages of play

The theory behind the stages of play dates back to 1929 when American sociologist, Mildred Parten Newhall, first coined the theory. Essentially, Newhall identified 6 categories of play that increase in sophistication as a child develops. Although this theory is almost 90 years old, its framework can still very much be applied today.

1. Unoccupied Play (0-12 months)

Unoccupied play is most commonly observed in babies and infants and describes being in one place while making seemingly random movements and gestures with no real objective. These movements are a child’s way of learning about their environment and they set the stage for future play exploration.

2. Solitary Play (0-2 years)

Solitary play is when a child plays and engages with toys on their own. It occurs due to their limited social, cognitive and physical skills and it gives them the time they need to think, explore and create. When a child plays alone, they learn to concentrate, think for themselves, come up with creative ideas, and regulate emotions. Every new object or situation is a new learning experience, therefore solitary play is often a busy time of play.

3. Onlooker play (18 months-2 ½ years)

Onlooker play (sometimes referred to as ‘spectator play’) involves learning through personal interaction with people, objects and the environment. It’s not about participation, it’s about watching other children in their play environment. Your child might ask questions or go over to other children and hover, but this doesn’t mean they want to join in. They are motivated to observe only and to mentally engage without the potential intimidation of actually being in the thick of things.

4. Parallel Play (2 ½-3 years)

Parallel play refers to children who play beside one another but don’t actually engage with each other. They may share the same toys, but they play independently. Parallel play is an important stage, helping children to learn peer regulation, observation skills, and how to get along with others. It’s about keeping an eye on their peers and enjoying the presence of others, without getting ‘too’ involved.

5. Associative Play (3-4 years)

Associative play involves a group of children who share a similar goal. This could be to play with the same toys or equipment, but it doesn’t mean working together in the play. Children in associate play do not set rules and there’s no formalisation of what they are doing. Each child engages in the same sort of play and might talk, borrow and take turns, but you wouldn’t call them an “active” participant.

6. Cooperative Play (4-5+ years)

Cooperative play (sometimes referred to as collaborative play) begins in the late preschool period. It’s when play is organised by overall group goals, when there is at least one leader and children are working together.

Cooperative play comes when a child has the maturity to to interact for the purpose of play. This could mean assigning a role, playing a role, taking part in an art project, or striving to attain a competitive goal. Communication is a critical skill of cooperative play.

Types of play


As children proceed through the stages of play, their play becomes more complex and involves more and more interaction. On top of exploratory, manipulative, creative and constructive play, children are required to learn the art of social play. This is all part of practicing skills like cooperating, compromising and problem solving, and the more they do it, the more they’ll remember the rhythms and melodies of social interaction.


Children often don’t understand the concept of sharing, as to them it means giving up something they want. The earlier you can get them used to it, the easier they’ll come to grips with it. When negotiating with your child to share, distraction is often required. This will make them see that sharing can be associated with something good.

Taking turns

Taking turns means waiting to receive enjoyment – another difficult concept for children to grasp. It’s hard for a child to see beyond wanting something immediately or having to give up something they are playing with. Make it fun by creating a game in which every time you ring a bell they have to swap.

Obeying rules

Children are naturally competitive and while adults may indulge a little cheating, their peers probably won’t. Obeying rules can at times be a tough lesson, but the earlier you encourage good sportsmanship, the easier it is for your child to understand the importance of rules. Always talk to your child about rules prior to an activity so that they feel prepared.


Learning the art of negotiation is of huge benefit to any child’s world. It determines who gets something first, how a game is played, and who will step in as ‘boss’. Collaborative play involves negotiation as children are required to share, take turns and follow rules. Without negotiation skills, emotions can get the better of your child and something little can play out like a very big deal. Master negotiation and they’ve got the basis for all play.

A parent’s role

As a parent, your role is to remember that children require time to develop their play skills. Make sure you provide plenty of indoor and outdoor opportunities for play and be sure to arrange regular play dates as they discover other children.

Role modelling an active lifestyle is important for your child’s play. Children learn from watching, listening and copying what happens around them, and being active in your own life shows your kids that you think it’s important and fun.

Teach basic movement skills, such as throwing, jumping, running, dancing and balancing. Set up play items in different ways and introduce new play items at regular intervals.

You can also:

  • Provide props such as toys and equipment
  • Turn off the TV, tablet and background noise of electronics
  • Limit after school activities
  • Allow large chunks of time for free play
  • Engage in their play by letting them take the lead or showing them how it’s done
  • Imitate, elaborate and ask questions about what your child is doing
  • Concede a little chaos
  • Introduce materials such as paint and play dough to encourage creative play.

You don’t always have to be involved in your child’s play, however you should supervise it. This is especially true when playing with new items or challenging play spaces. Looking for some high-quality toys to help encourage your child’s play and development? HipKids offer a range of timeless, inspiring toys that will ignite creativity and last your children years to come. Browse our range today.

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