Stages of Play - Josiah

Stages of Play

Play has significant role in a child’s life.  Whether bouncing with balls alone or with siblings or holding an imaginary airplane and making the “swoosh” sound etc. Play builds the child’s creativity and imagination as well as other skills for example, a child is developing important social skills like taking turns, learning how to cooperate or set rules to get along with peers their age.

Not all “play” are the same. Sociologist Mildred Parten describes six types of play that a child will take part in, depending on their age, mood, and social setting:

Unoccupied Play

Unoccupied play refers to activity when a child actually isn’t playing at all. He may be engaged in seemingly random movements, with no objective. Despite the idling appearances, this is definitely play, and setting the stage for future play exploration.

Solitary (Independent) Play

Just what it sounds like – when your child plays alone. This type of play is important because it teaches a child how to keep himself occupied, eventually setting the path for being self-sufficient. Any child can play independently, but this type of play is the most common in younger children. It usually begins during toddler but some extends to 3 years old.  At that age, they are still pretty self-centered and do not communication much verbally. If a child is on the shy side and doesn’t know his playmates well, he may prefer this type of play.

Onlooker Play

Onlooker play is when a child observes others playing but does not join the play. They may frequently engage in other forms of social interactions such as conversations to learn more about the game or play that is going on and would take a longer time to decide to join in.  This type of play is common in younger children between the ages of 2½ and 3½ onwards.

Parallel play

This occurs 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 times mimic one another.  Parallel play is common in toddlers but may be extended to slightly later age about 4-5 years old. Although it looks like there is very little interactions between them or they may be seen as if they are talking to themselves, these children are learning valuable social skills. One child can be an observer and will occasionally see what the others are doing and then modify his or her play accordingly. 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.

Associative play

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 from parallel play. They now begin to carry conversations and 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 3 or 4, extending into the late preschool age, 5-6 years old. This is an important stage of play because it develops necessary skills such as cooperation, problems solving, and language development.

Cooperative play

Cooperative play is where play finally becomes organised into groups and you will witness some level of teamwork.  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 4 and 6, as it requires an evolved set of organisational skills and a higher degree of social maturity. Cooperative play is indeed the culmination of all play stages, bringing together all the skills learned across previous stages into action, giving the child the necessary skills for social and group interactions.

Recognising the importance of play, we, at Josiah Montessori place a priority on making certain that our children enjoy many forms of play throughout their school day. Throughout the day, our teachers facilitate various forms of play to encourage language development, reinforce math skills and encourage self-confidence, healthy social interaction and teamwork. It is exciting to see the different stages of play demonstrated in our classrooms as the children grow into cooperative play and more detailed imaginative play as they develop to be a mature being!

Because play is closely tied to the cognitive, socio-emotional, and motor development of young children, it continues to be an important part of our early childhood programs.


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