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A guide to the five stages of play

Two children playing telephones

Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul. – Frederich Froebel, Educator (1782-1852)

You might hear the phrase ‘learning through play’ in reference to children under 5 and this is because play is the essential function in your child’s development. 

How play develops

So much learning happens during play such as social skills, problem-solving, critical thinking, maths, risk-taking, negotiations, estimations, sequencing of events, self-expression, creativity and much more.

Throughout the early years of your child’s development, you will notice that they go through different stages of play, though not necessarily in sequence and stages may overlap. Often you may see a child that usually relishes in collaborative play, retreat and observe from the side. This is perfectly fine as the child adapts play to their current needs.

The 5 stages of play

Discover the five stages of play.

As your child progresses through each one they’ll learn more skills that are essential for their overall development.

Solitary play (birth – 2 years)

At this stage, your child is content playing on their own. They are at an egocentric stage and will have little awareness of others. They may ‘flit’ from one activity to another, though at times focus for a while on something that captivates their interest.

Onlooker play (2 years)

Your child may watch others at play but not join in. This can occur at any stage of development and is common in children who are building their physical and social skills and self-confidence. They will watch from a distance and may imitate the actions of the group they are watching but will resist participating.

Parallel play ( 2 years plus)

This is when your child plays alongside others with limited interaction. They will tolerate others standing next to them or playing with the same equipment, however, they are still more interested in their own activity than having meaningful interactions with others.

Associate play (3-4 years)

At this stage, children start to react and interact with each other during play. They may be playing with the same equipment but doing different things or taking on different characters during imaginative play. 

Cooperative or collaborative play (4 – 5 years)

Here you’ll notice children playing together with a common goal or interest. Leaders and followers might start to emerge when delegating roles and tasks. Your child is now more able to sustain a shared goal, play for a longer length of time and in a more complex manner.

Inspiring imaginative play

To support your child with play, provide them with ample time to play and the space to explore. Play is a safe place for a child to test out new skills and ideas. This can take place inside or outdoors and there is no need for intricate or expensive resources. Open-ended and natural resources inspire the imagination and provide endless outcomes and opportunities to extend play. 

Walking outside is a fantastic way to collect items for open-ended and symbolic play. A log can become a raft and a leaf its sail, A flat stone could become a dolls bed or a bus travelling to the shops. The possibilities are endless.

Enjoy open-ended play at home

You may be surprised by how many items you may have at home waiting for your child’s imagination to take over. The list below is just a few suggestions but from whatever you find, just check they are age-appropriate and aren’t small enough to be a choking hazard or long enough to place around the neck.

  • Wooden blocks, discs, curtain rings, lolly sticks or peg people
  • Twigs, bark slices, leaves or smooth medium-sized pebbles
  • Paper, coloured cellophane, crinkle paper, cardboard rolls or boxes
  • Large, medium and small cans (filed the edges smooth to prevent cuts)
  • Wool, ribbon, zips, foil blankets or pieces of fabric
  • Sieves, muffin tins, baking trays, large tubs or a wooden pestle and mortar

For some great ideas of activities you can enjoy at home with your child, browse our try this at home section on The Family Hub.