What are the different stages of pretend play?

As children develop and grow

Play is all about having fun! Any activity, organized or unstructured, your child finds fun and enjoyable is considered play. But play is much more than just a fun activity for your child! As a child grows they go through different stages of play development.

While playing, children learn and develop important skills they will continue to use throughout their lifetime. Problem-solving, creativity, and willingness to take risks are just a few of the skills developed through play. Children who use their imagination and ‘play pretend’ in safe environments are able to learn about their emotions, what interests them, and how to adapt to situations. When children play with each other, they are given the opportunity to learn how to interact with others and behave in various social situations.

As children develop and grow, so does their way of playing. Mildred Parten did some great work observing youngsters at play, and developed the stages of social play for children. Let’s take a brief look at how social play develops and changes over time for children. There are six stages of social play and it starts at birth.

Be sure to give your child plenty of time and space to play. Play is important for your child’s development at every stage of early childhood. There are 6 stages of play. All of the stages of play involve exploring, being creative, and having fun. This list explains how children’s play changes by age as they grow and develop social skills.

Unoccupied Play (Birth-3 Months)

Yes, play starts at birth! Unoccupied play can be observed from the earliest months in life. It is defined as sensory activities that lack focus or narrative. At this stage, babies make a lot of random movements with their arms, legs, hands, and feet. This is actually the beginning of play. Key characteristics include:

  • Lack of social interaction.
  • Lack of sustained focus.
  • No clear story lines during play.
  • Language use is non-existent or very limited.

Examples of unoccupied play include:

  • A child picking up, shaking, then discarding objects in their vicinity.
  • A child hitting and giggling at a play mobile in a cot.

These forms of play may seem un-educational at first, but have an important developmental purpose. In the first few months of life children’s unoccupied play helps them orient themselves in the world. They learn to master their limbs and motor skills. They develop depth perception, tactile skills, and object permanence.

Solitary Play (Birth-2 Years)

Solitary play follows on from unoccupied play. It is play that involves a child playing alone and with little interest in toys outside of their immediate vicinity. It is more focused and sustained than unoccupied play. At this stage, children start to play on their own.

They are not quite ready to play with other children just yet. During this stage, children will still have little interest in adults or other children during their play. Key characteristics include:

  • Increased focus and sustained attention on toys.
  • Emerging play narratives, such as use of symbolic play (using objects to represent other objects, such as push around a block to represent a car).
  • Disinterest in other children or adults during play.
  • Unstructured play, lacking clear goals.

Examples of solitary play include:

  • Two children playing with their toys but never looking at or showing any interest in each other.
  • A child who has developed the ability to sustain interest in one toy for more than 60 seconds.
  • An older child going for a walk through the park, exploring their surrounds.

Even after a child has gotten older and mastered more advanced forms of play, solitary play continues to be employed. Even in adulthood, we play alone to recharge, reflect and explore new ideas on our own.

As children develop and grow, so does their way of playing. Mildred Parten did some great work observing youngsters at play, and developed the stages of social play for children. Let’s take a brief look at how social play develops and changes over time for children. There are six stages of social play and it starts at birth.

Spectator/Onlooker Behavior (2 Years)

Onlooker play is the first sign of children showing interest in the play behaviors of other children. But based on the name, children at this stage, just looks/watches other children play but does not join or play with them. They may also have many questions of what the other children are doing etc.

During this stage, children will observe other children’s play without getting involved themselves. They will often sit within earshot so they can hear other children’s play conversations. Key characteristics include:

  • Children showing interest in other children’s play.
  • Withholding from play due to fear, disinterest, or hesitation.

Examples of onlooker play include:

  • Younger children in a multi-age Montessori classrooms will observe older children at play, but not get involved in the ‘big kids games’.
  • Adults watching a sporting event.
  • A shy child watching others play without getting involved herself due to timidness.

Listening and observing are powerful forms of learning. Albert Bandura, for example, showed the power of observation through his bobo doll experiments. In these experiments, children would observe adults playing with dolls. Children who saw children being aggressive toward the dolls were subsequently more aggressive themselves when they played with the dolls.

Parallel Play (2+ Years)

Parallel play follows onlooker play. It involves children playing in proximity to one another but not together. When a child plays alongside or near others but does not play with them this stage is referred to as parallel play. It may seem that they have no interaction but they are paying attention to each other, sometimes even copying one another. This is the beginning of the desire to be with other children.

They will tend to share resources and observe one another from a distance. However, they will not share the same game play or goals while playing. Key characteristics include:

  • Playing in the same room and with the same resources, but not together.
  • Independent exploration and discovery.
  • Observing and mimicking.
  • Having separate goals and focuses during play.
  • Minimal communication with other children.

Examples of parallel play include:

  • A brother and sister playing with the same Lego set, but constructing different buildings.
  • Children sharing brushes and paints, but painting on different canvases.
  • Early play dates where parents bring their children to play together. These dates are usually about getting children more comfortable with peers of the same age, but younger children will often not start playing together too well.

Associate Play (3-4 Years)

Associative play emerges when children begin acknowledging one another and working side-by-side, but not necessarily together. Associative play differs from parallel play because children begin to share, acknowledge, copy and work with one another.

When a child starts to interact with others during play, but there is not a large amount of interaction at this stage. A child might be doing an activity related to the kids around him, but might not actually be interacting with another child. For example, kids might all be playing on the same piece of playground equipment but all doing different things like climbing, swinging, etc.

Children at this stage, starts to interact with other children they are playing with. They start asking questions and talks about the toys and what they are making. This is the beginning of understanding how to get along with others. However, it is not quite the next stage (cooperative play) because children do not yet share common goals during play – in other words, they’re not yet playing ‘together’ in any cohesive way. Key characteristics include:

  • Negotiating the sharing of resources.
  • Emerging chatter and language skills. Children ask each other questions about their play.
  • Children are still playing independently with different objectives and strategies.
  • Mimicking and observing continue to occur, but at a closer distance.

Examples of associative play include:

  • Children asking one another questions about their play, what they’re doing, and how they’re doing it. The children are nonetheless working on different tasks.
  • Children realizing there are limited resources in the play area, so negotiating with one another for which resources to use.

Social/ Cooperative Play (4+ Years)

Cooperative play emerges shortly after associative play and represents fully integrated social group play. Here you will see the beginning of teamwork. Children at this stage plays with others for a common purpose. Thus, beginning to socialise with other children.

During this stage, expect to see children playing together and sharing the same game. The children will have the same goals, assign one another roles in the game, and collaborate to achieve their set gameplay goals.

This stage represents the achievement of socialization, but social skills will still be developing. Children may need support, guided practice and scaffolding to help them develop positive social skills such as sharing, compromise, and turn-taking. Key characteristics include:

  • Children work together on a shared game.
  • Children share a common objective during game play.
  • Children have team roles or personas during game play.
  • There can be an element of compromise and sacrifice for the common good of the game.

Examples of cooperative play include:

  • Imaginative play, where children take on the roles of their favorite movie characters to act out a scene or create their own new scene.
  • Board games where children need to take turns in order for the game to proceed according to shared and agreed upon rules.
  • Organized sports.

Cooperative play is underpinned by the social constructivist learning theory. Key theorists from this approach include Barbara Rogoff and Lev Vygotsky. The central idea in this theory is that social interaction helps students to progress in their thinking. When students discuss things in groups, they get to see ideas from different perspectives and have their own ideas challenged and refined.

Play starts when we are babies, but it does not stop there! Including play in your child’s daily routine and giving them time to play is important for their development at every age. These stages are general guidelines for what to expect of your child’s play skills, but remember every child is different and if you have concerns bring them up with your healthcare provider.

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