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Learning About Play (2): Stages of Play

Do play look the same to you when you walk into a room of children engaging in activities? Play (child-led work) has many holistic benefits to a child’s development. Understanding the stages of play will make us be more aware of the cognitive and social development stage they are at so we can better manage our expectations. One does not outgrow one stage and move on to the next. Some stages appear even in adulthood. In this second part of the Learning About Play series, let’s explore the stages.

Also see: Learning About Play (1): Types of Play

Unoccupied Play


While the term “unoccupied” might seem a little negative, this is one crucial stage.

It starts from birth –  when the baby is looking at the sway scarves hanging from the gym frame, the baby reaching out for his toes, the baby kicking the legs in the air. It doesn’t look like the child is playing as there is no manipulation with objects or it may involves random movements with no objective. I remember my one week old firstborn loved to stare at the crib’s wooden engraving next to him. Also, I suspect my newborn baby then “broke out” of the swaddle was because he was playing by moving his limbs. So now we know babies play too! No wonder I came across a comment before that a blank wall can be stimulating enough for newborns. So don’t worry! Your baby is not bored!

Children (and possibly adults) continue to have unoccupied play. One might look at the scenery outside the window, or moving around an area, seemingly not engaged in any activity. However at this stage, their minds are free to imagine and they are free to move around. I think their minds are very occupied in this stage of play.

Sometimes it is good to let children be bored. When they are bored, they daydream. When they daydream, they imagine. When they imagine, they create!


Onlooker Play


Parents are often worried when their children seem to be observes, and not actively playing. Observing / looking at others is also engaging for the child! We should stop labelling children who tend to observe as shy or anti-social. Children in this stage of play is watching and taking in information. They might not be ready to join in the activity yet but definitely their minds are active even just by watching. Don’t we as adults sometimes observe what people around us are doing before we engage in an activity?


Solitary Play


At this stage, children are engaged in their own activity. The non-mobile baby might be rolling the ball, tugging a teddy bear’s ear or exploring almost everything and anything with the mouth. You might start seeing your crawler or sitting child rolling toy cars or stacking blocks alone. This is the beginning stage of manipulating with objects, when we can actually “see” them play. They are in their own little world, and slightly distance themselves from others if there are other children in the room.

Do remember that children do not outgrow these stages. So you might still see a preschooler or a primary school child engaged in solitary play. We all need out ME time, right? So let’s respect that.

If you realised, I did not put an age range to the stages. This is because the possible age range is so wide. However I want to highlight to you that if your child is constantly in solitary or onlooker play stages till 3 years-old, and didn’t move on to the next stage, or not interacting with other peers at all, you might want to highlight to his or her doctor during the 3 year-old assessment. 


Parallel Play


This stage is like a bridge to more complex social play later, or like a window to peek at how their social skills are developing. Children are usually playing side by side, playing in close proximity, and might be using the same type of toys. However, they have their own agenda and not very bothered with what the peers nearby are doing. There might be some speaking or interactions but they are engaged in their own projects.

Usually the “interaction” part comes when their project is being disturbed due to using of the shared materials and space, e.g. toy being snatched or asking a child to move aside.


Associative Play


As children are starting to be more aware of the people around them, this stage start appearing. They can work on an activity, game or project together by taking on a particular role. There is definitely more interactions than parallel play, but not as matured as the next stage.

I often see toddlers and preschoolers drifting between parallel and associative play. I think we need to be aware that even for preschoolers, they do not have that social capacity to engage in those common-goal play for a long time on their own. It is tiring to control emotions, negotiate and verbalise their thoughts effectively to their friends.

At this stage, you might see your child engaged in a lot of pretend play with siblings or peers. There are different ideas coming together (because they are still not matured enough to work together effectively, they still want to try out their own ideas or what they want to work with), thus you may see a mixture of materials, toys and tools as they keep adding details in their little projects (hello, massive clean-up time!)

This stage sets the groundwork for more complex social play later. You can see various skills arising from this stage; children come up with ideas what to do (“I will be the daddy, you will be the mummy.”), negotiation/turn-taking skills (“I will be the driver first, you can be the passenger. Later you will be the driver.”), cooperative skills (“Let’s join the road up from your building to my building to make a town”) and definitely language skills as they learn to communicate their ideas and thoughts.


Cooperative Play


This is a mature cognitive development which requires a good amount of empathy and self-regulation to have cooperative play. The children work towards a common goal, understand and follow through game rules and possibly engage in competitive games as a team. I know a lot of articles (and even my old textbook) stated it is common in preschool age. I’m not saying you won’t see young children playing cooperatively. Is just that this stage is more commonly seen in children at Primary 2 level onwards and not to be confused with associative play.

The reason why I stated the age for this stage is because it is very unfair for us to keep demanding our babies, toddlers and preschoolers to share (wait! I know! Sharing is an important skill, let me explain). Instead of keep telling our young children to “share” (give in), it is more important to show them how to be nice to one another. Get them to state their feelings, sportscast their intentions, then start problem-solving (that is where you can offer solutions like to divide equally, take turns). By pushing young children to “share” without understand the context or helping them to understand what is happening, you lose the opportunity to raise empathetic thinkers. EMPATHY is the key for a better world!


Do you know when our brain stops growing?

Possibly between 25 to 30 years-old. We are not fully rationale till 25 years old! So let’s not expect a young child to have the same social functions as an adult.

When we adults understand the children’s current development stage, we can effectively help our children navigate through the complexity of social play and development. This in turn boost their cognitive and social ability to think, reason and cooperate effectively through their adulthood.



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