Whether they are taking a trip to outer space on a “rocket ship” that’s really a playground swing, splashing around wildly in a water puddle, or quietly building a zoo out of colorful blocks, children are always spending the majority of their time and energy doing one simple thing: playing.
But how simple is it, really? Let’s all take a moment to remember what it was like to be a kid at playtime.
It’s safe to say that we all look back and remember doing any number of things: climbing all over playground equipment pretending to be monsters and princesses, organizing massive games of hide-and-seek and Red Rover, or perhaps just playing house with a baby doll and a little purse. All those activities that we remember most as adults are representative of just a few of the stages of play a child will experience.
Our brains tend to recall the most interactive, symbolic, and social forms of play, so it can be worrisome when we watch a two-year-old at a play date wandering around and playing with toys on their own, not even interested in the friend we brought them to see. Are they antisocial? Is there something wrong? What’s going on?
Not to worry! In this blog post, we’re going to take a look at the six social stages of play, as well as examining what play looks like and what a child is learning as they progress through these stages. If we know what to look for, we can spot these stages as they come, and we can engage in a child’s play in a way that is supportive and productive no matter their age or developmental level!
What Is Play, Anyway?
For a child, play is everything! Through play, children are constantly learning. They develop fine and gross motor skills, language and communication skills, and they learn through exploration, construction, fantasy and pretend, and social play forms!
Play is usually active. Physical activity is very important for a child’s little energy-fueled body, and play is one of the best ways for them to express all that energy in a positive way! Active play will often be adventurous and sometimes even risky, as children push the boundaries to learn what their bodies can do and what kind of impact they can have on their immediate environment.
With adult supervision, those risks are okay, even healthy! Taking risks and pushing boundaries in a safe environment is one way children test themselves and develop skills that they can use for the rest of their lives.
But play is more than just physical exertion. Children use play to develop their rapidly-growing brains as well! It isn’t unusual for a child to lose themselves in their play, and that’s good! Children should be very focused and attentive while they play. A child that is fully engaged in play is playing in a meaningful way.
When they pay attention to what they’re doing, children can test new theories based on their knowledge, try out different roles for themselves, enhance their understanding of concepts, and practice new skills, all through concentrated, meaningful play.
As children get older, they begin to grow more interested in each other. Play starts to become more interactive, as they seek to build and establish relationships with other children and with trusted adults.
Communication will take a leading role in interactive play, allowing children to expand their vocabularies and social language patterns. They can even try out non-verbal communication like facial expressions and gesturing with their hands.
We can expect a lot of questions from friends engaged in language-based play. And there are great opportunities for early reading skills too, by playing around with silly and made-up words, singing songs like the name game (Charlie Charlie bo Barlie), and playing rhyming games! These are all activities which help build a child’s phonological awareness, an important basis for learning phonetics later on.
Children also eventually begin to try out symbolic play. This is when they really get into pretending – their imaginations can take them everywhere!
Through pretend play, children expand and solidify their understanding of behavioral and relationship patterns. They imitate the other children and adults in their lives, trying on different personas and moods. While they pretend, children also often practice emotional articulation through drama.
As we know so well here at High Hopes, play can also be therapeutic, enhancing and establishing skills that children can build on for their entire lives!
You can’t force someone to play. Play is always voluntary! Children are learning their own agency and free will, making up their own rules as they go and building confidence in their choices and actions.
More than anything, play is always FUN. All this stuff that we’ve outlined -- the skills that children are learning and developing -- are all wonderful side-effects of play, but they are not the primary objective. Fun is the number one requirement for play!
Fun will be different for every child, especially as they grow and start defining more clear likes and dislikes, preferences and interests. But playtime will always be funtime, no matter the specifics!
Social Stages of Play
There are six stages of play that describe the level of social involvement a child is capable of at a given time in their development. Every child progresses through these stages at their own individual pace, and employs their own individual brand of play. But these stages will be visible for those who are paying attention.
The very first stage of play starts the moment a child is born. Unoccupied play is a very internal process. A baby engaged in unoccupied play is mostly just doing what a baby does: moving their arms and legs, reaching, watching toys and faces, and sometimes experimenting with sounds. Remember, babies are very new! At this stage, they’re testing themselves out, figuring out how their body moves and what the world is.
From birth until the toddler ages, children engage primarily in solitary play. As the name implies, this stage is typified by children playing alone.
We will see a lot of “loner” behaviors from children in the solitary stage of play, where they are not even interested in playing with their peers. They may even react negatively when a friend imposes on their playtime, like the phase that every toddler goes through of snatching toys from nearby friends or snapping, “Mine!” This doesn’t mean they are antisocial. They just haven’t quite figured out how to include others in their play.
But it won’t be long until they start to notice the other children in their world. At first, noticing is all it is. This stage, called spectator or onlooker play, is characterized by children recognizing and watching their friends playing without joining in. They may also imitate each other’s play, while still staying separate from one another.
This leads directly into the next stage, called parallel play. This is an interesting bridge phase between a child noticing friends and actually playing with them. The rule of thumb in this stage is location, location, location.
In parallel play, children will play separately, but near each other. As an early example of this, one child might be doing a puzzle on the floor near another friend’s busy construction site for a block tower. Neither friend enters into the other’s activity, nor do they grow defensive because of the other child’s nearness.
Later on, two children may even participate in the same type of activity, but still maintain a separateness. For example, two little girls may both wrap babies in blankets and pretend to feed them or pat them to sleep in the Dramatic Play area. They are both playing with babies in similar ways, but they are not really playing together. This tolerance for closeness is a big building block for the later, interactive stages of play.
The first sign of interaction comes at the associative play stage, which can start as late as four years old in typically developing children. During this stage, children begin to play together, participating in the same or similar activities, and with similar goals. They will talk to each other, ask questions, and pretend together. At this stage, children are beginning to become more interested in the people they are playing with than the toys or activities that might be involved.
Just as they test their body’s impact on their surroundings and environment, children test their words’ influence on social situations and friends. They may attempt to assert different levels of control over a play interaction, display certain dramatic moods, and try out new tones and inflections in their language while engaged in associative play. They’re doing this to test out social behaviors and patterns they have observed in the earlier stages of play, to see what kind of response they get.
The final stage of play is cooperative play. This is the stage when children will start to really grasp and enjoy games with established rules. They will be competitive and have a strong sense of fairness. Their pretend play will grow increasingly complex, and will include increasing numbers of roles and tasks to accommodate their friends’ participation. Children will begin to negotiate with each other, and to bicker even over the smallest details.
This conflict can be nerve-wracking for adult onlookers, but it can actually be a good thing. Through it, children begin to organize themselves. They learn social coping mechanisms and conflict resolution skills, and begin to cooperate functionally, taking turns independent of adult intervention and solving their own problems together.
What Can the Adults Do?
We all want to support a child’s play to the best of our ability. But how can we do that? Many times, children will appear to be very independent in their play, not needing and sometimes not wanting an adult’s direction or intervention. But adults can engage in every child’s playtime in a way that works for the child, and still maximizes those wonderful developmental side-effects we touched on earlier.
First things first: Be prepared. Know your child! Know their likes, dislikes, what catches and holds their interest, what types of play are their favorites, which environments they find the most exciting and stimulating.
Make their environment all about them. Provide activities and toys you know they will enjoy, and make sure they have lots of choices! Variety will keep a child entertained and engaged. Make plans for activities and outings that will appeal to their specific interests and preferences.
If you have a little one who loves animals, look into heading to the zoo or the aquarium, maybe even involving them in the care of a pet or getting a fish tank.
If you have a small scientist on your hands, take them to the science museum and look up easy do-it-at-home experiments to perform! Pinterest is a great resource for all kinds of science-related activities, many of which can be done with materials you may already have in your home, with minimal clean-up.
Little ones who are dramatic and imaginative will love a trip to the movies or a play on stage. Children’s karaoke machines are a great idea, too. You can also make videos of their performances, and watch them together afterwards!
From an everyday standpoint, the best thing an adult can do to support a child’s play is just to participate with them! Talk about their play, listen to what they are thinking, validate their efforts, utilize teachable moments to enhance and direct play, make suggestions, ask questions, and show new concepts by example.
We have a rule here at High Hopes: Engage, engage, engage. The more we engage with children during their play, the more moments we can find to teach them something new, or to learn something new about them. Social play is defined by relationships, and it’s important to build a confidence and rapport with every child you hope to teach through play.
But the most important thing to do when playing with a child? Fulfill the number one playtime requirement:
 Encourage Play LLC. The Social Stages of Play. 14 December 2015. Web. 28 February 2018. <https://www.encourageplay.com/blog/social-stages-of-play>.
 Pathways.org. Stages of Play. 2018. Web. 28 February 2018. <https://pathways.org/blog/kids-learn-play-6-stages-play-development/>.
 Rymanowicz, Kylie. The Power of Play - Part 1: Stages of Play. 6 October 2015. Web. 28 February 2018. <http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/the_power_of_play_part_1_stages_of_play>.