Children go through many stages of play in their early years, and each stage helps them to build skills and confidence to move on the next, until eventually they are happy to seek out other children to play together and form friendships.
The first stage of play is called Unoccupied Play. This is where the child seems to be not engaged or actively playing with others at all. They may remain still and be engaged in random movements with no objective. This stage of play is mostly seen in new-borns and infants, between birth and one year old. This is an important setting stage for future play exploration and development. Lots of hand and mouth development is learnt at this age, and this can be misinterpreted as teething. At this age, children learn most form their senses and by putting things in their mouth, they are discovering preferences and control and an understanding of the work around them.
Children then move on to Solitary Play. During this stage of play, children will often play alone, with toys away from others, and be uninterested or unaware of what others around them are doing. This stage of play is most commonly seen in young toddlers between the ages of six months to two years, but it is important for children of all age groups to participate in from time to time. Solitary play is common at a young age because cognitive, physical and social skills have yet to fully develop. This type of play is important because it teaches children how to entertain themselves. A good thing to do at this age is to offer your child lots of variety in their toys, so they can spend time exploring it by themselves. Treasure Baskets are a great way of doing this without spending lots of money. Messy play is another good thing to provide for them at this age, as they love to explore, and it also helps if you have a with fussy eater, as they can get used to touching different things. Sand, water, Gloop (cornflour and water), playdough, shaving foam, jelly, dry pasta, bubbly sand (sand mixed with washing up liquid) all make fabulous messy play activities.
The next stage is Parallel play. This is when children play side-by-side from one another, but there is a lack of group involvement amongst them. They will typically be playing with similar toys and often they will mimic one another. Parallel play is common in toddlers between the ages of 2 ½ and 3 ½ but can take place at any age. Although it looks like there is very little contact between them, these children are learning valuable social skills and actually learn quite a lot from one another. For this reason, parallel play is important as a transitory stage for the development of social maturity, which is key to later stages of play. Children are also starting to enjoy Imitative Play and enjoy role play at this age. Introducing things such as dolls or a ‘shop’ will enable them to act out what they see every day, when they go shopping their parents. It is always very interesting to watch children playing I this way, as you will see a lot of yourself in their play, the things they say are likely to be what you say!
Help children to play together and help them to share, by role modelling this even if it is for a short period of time.
After that, Associative play starts – At this stage, children will begin to play together, but not focused towards a common goal. A child will be more interested in playing with other children around them than the individual toys they play with. Associative play is slightly different than parallel play as children may continue to play separately from one another, but they start to become more involved in what others around them are doing. You may find children playing or trading with the same toys or actively talking with or engaging one another, but no rules of play are being set. This type of play typically begins around ages three or four years, extending into the pre-school age. This is an important stage of play because it develops necessary skills such as cooperation, problems solving, and language development.
Board games and physical play is great for children of this age, as they can work together, help each other and start to understand team working.
Cooperative play – Cooperative play is where play finally becomes organised into groups and teamwork between children is actually seen. Children are now interested in both the people that they are playing with as well as the activity at hand. The group is more formalised with a leader, as well as other assigned roles, and play organises around accomplishing group goals or specific tasks. Cooperative play begins in the late preschool period, between the ages of four and
six years. It is uncommon to see children reach this stage until these later years, as it requires an evolved set of organisational skills and a higher degree of social maturity. Cooperative play brings together all the skills learned across previous stages into action, giving the child the necessary skills for social and group interactions.
By this time, children are starting to form friendship groups and seek out other children with the same interests as them to play with.
Spend some time thinking about how your child plays, what stage of play are they in?