The Different Levels of Play in Childhood 

Childhood play is fundamental to healthy development in kids. Play is a way to explore, discover, create and learn. Across all cultures, children play, and they play in similar ways. Mounting evidence shows that fostering play in children of all ages is essential to development, and that stifling or limiting play can have harmful effects.

In a world that has become more and more digital, outdoor play is returning to the spotlight as an integral component of childhood development. Children learn to play in stages.

kids going down wide slide

As their emotional and cognitive skills develop, children gradually become more and more social in their play, eventually becoming fully cooperative with other children.

Learn about the different levels of play in childhood to help you make an informed decision about the types of games and playground components to provide the students and kids in your life.

6 stages of play

The History of Studying Childhood Development

Developmental researchers study the various conditions that affect how a child develops.

kids climbing playground net

One of the most important factors in child development is the environment and how children engage in it. Children naturally interact with their environment through play, which has led researchers to ask some important questions about the role of play in childhood development. Essentially, developmental researchers want to know what it is about play that produces happy, healthy and emotionally regulated children, and what types of play are optimal for producing this outcome.

The study of childhood play dates back a long time. Sigmund Freud, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky have each proposed different theories about play and its role in lifespan development. While these researchers’ work is more commonly referred to in today’s understanding of childhood development, one researcher’s early theory has also contributed to our understanding of the need for childhood play.

One of the early researchers to define a developmental model of childhood play was Mildred Parten. In her 1929 dissertation, Parten identified and described six stages of play based on her observational research of 2- to 5-year-old children at play.

Parten’s theory describes two primary categories of play that children engage in — non-social and social play — each consisting of three separate stages. Non-social play includes unoccupied, solitary and onlooker play, while social play consists of parallel, associative and cooperative play. Parten’s theory also suggests that children engage in increasingly more social types of play as they get older, highlighting the correlation between play and social development.

The 6 Stages of Play

As mentioned above, Parten’s six stages of play theory is broken into two categories, non-social play – the first three stages, and social play – the last three stages. All of the stages play an important role in a child’s development as they involve exploring, using their imagination, and more.  Read on to learn about the six stages or follow the links below to be directed to a specific one.

  1. Unoccupied Play 
  2. Solitary Play 
  3. Spectator or Onlooker Behavior 
  4. Parallel Play
  5. Associative Play 
  6. Cooperative Play 

1. Unoccupied Play

According to Parten’s model, the first stage of play is unoccupied play. Within this framework, unoccupied play is considered non-social. Unoccupied play is the least common form of play and is mostly seen in infants and very young children.

Researchers observe that when children are engaging in unoccupied play, their behavior is more random compared to a structured style of play.

boy in wheelchair at play panel

Unoccupied children interact with their environment without an apparent goal. Contrast this to a child who is actively building, creating or piecing together physical objects — unoccupied play is undirected and unfocused.

Some researchers use the term “scattered” to describe unoccupied play. However, because it’s mostly infants and very young children who engage in unoccupied play, it’s not so much that this type of play is disorganized or futile. Rather, it allows them to practice what will become foundational skills for later development.

Researchers suggest that unoccupied play has some important benefits to development, including:

  • Allows for the free-flowing exploration of objects around them
  • Provides a way to practice handling physical objects, which encourages motor-development
  • Teaches about mastering self-control within the physical environment
  • Encourages learning about how the world works by providing direct feedback based on their interaction with it

One of the most crucial developmental milestones children can reach through unoccupied play is object permanence — learning that objects continue to exist even if you can no longer see them. Caregivers may not realize it, but endless hours of peek-a-boo or hide-the-toy help teach children about the rules of the world around them.

Unoccupied play is also essential to a child’s ability to experience the benefits of self-expression. When a baby or toddler is left alone to move around, they’re able to experience feelings of freedom for freedom’s sake. Additionally, the freedom to explore in an unstructured way also helps spark imagination and interests unique to that child.

While engaged in unoccupied play, babies and toddlers become naturally drawn to things around them that they find interesting. This interest is why a new rattle, stuffed animal or everyday objects like keys and cups can be so entertaining to this age group. Everything is new, exciting and something to be explored without constraint.

To help foster the benefits of unoccupied play, play areas should include a wide variety of textures and colors for kids to explore. Since children are still uncertain of the world around them, bright lights or sudden sounds can interrupt unoccupied play. Sensory play panels are ideal for children in the unoccupied stage of play. Teachers and caregivers can allow kids to observe and touch these components, letting their imagination develop.

View Sensory Play Equipment

Examples of Unoccupied Play

Unoccupied play occurs when a child is not engaged in any particular activity. During this stage, young children may appear aimless and seem to be daydreaming or simply observing their surroundings.

This stage of play development is common among infants who are not yet able to crawl or walk. Examples of unoccupied play include:

  • Looking around the room
  • Staring at a mobile
  • Splashing their hands in the bath and gazing intently at the movement
  • Waving their hands and kicking their legs while lying down and observing a toy
  • Reaching out to a toy and laughing at it without actually playing with it

2. Solitary Play

The second stage of Parten’s six stages of play is solitary play, a form of non-social play that infants and toddlers engage in. It differs from unoccupied play in that it is more sustained and focused, whereby the child actively chooses nearby toys and objects to interact with as opposed to an adult presenting a child with novel items. During solitary play, children have little interest in playing with adults or other children and will stick to playing alone in a small area.

The level of solitary play differs from child to child. Only children or children who don’t yet attend daycare or preschool may engage in more solitary play by virtue of not being around other children to play with.

Animal Play Panel

Solitary play is a crucial factor in development because it essentially prepares children for the ability to play cooperatively with others. Some teachers and caregivers worry when a child goes through a solitary play phase because it can seem like they are avoiding interacting with others around them. But solitary play has a number of positive outcomes for children, including:

  • Encourages free exploration of ideas and interests without being constrained by the needs of others
  • Provides time for them to master necessary skills, including motor and cognitive skills
  • Cultivates individual expression by allowing them to choose which types of games or toys they engage with
  • Teaches them how to work independently, which is an important developmental achievement for later needs, like self-esteem and self-efficacy

Solitary play is not a finite stage but rather a type of play that children, teens and even adults return to time and time again, particularly when exploring personal interests. During solitary play, there are no rules that constrain a child’s imagination because they’re able to make everything up as they go along. That’s why you’ll often see children demonstrate symbolic play, where they make one object represent another object for the purpose of achieving their goal.

Similar to unoccupied play, play areas conducive to solitary pay can include play panels that entertain and engage children on their own. Panels, such as an animal locator panel, provide structure while allowing a child to freely imagine what it’s like to interact with animals and solve problems, helping them master cognitive abilities on their own.

Examples of Solitary Play

Solitary play is common among toddlers who are still developing social skills or are not yet comfortable playing with others. Examples of solitary play include:

  • Using building blocks
  • Playing with dolls or action figures
  • Drawing or coloring
  • Paging through board books with colorful pictures
  • Climbing a play gym
  • Sorting and stacking toys

Another classic example of the use of symbolic play and imagination in solitary play is when a child may take a block and pretend it’s a car by pushing it around making vehicle sounds. Or a child may sit in a chair and pretend to drive a bus or firetruck.

3. Spectator or Onlooker Behavior

The third stage of Parten’s six stages of play, onlooker play is when a child is aware of and actively observes others playing but only from the sidelines. They will look and listen to others playing but won’t engage in play themselves. They may make conversation with other kids, inquiring or making recommendations about play.

Like unoccupied and solitary play, onlooker play is considered a non-social form of play. As with solitary play, onlooker play is crucial to developing independence while preparing children for the foundation of social play.

Acting as a spectator, children actively watch others play, allowing them to observe the rules of social behavior among other important skills.

Playground bench

As with solitary play, caregivers may be concerned that a child is avoiding others when engaging in spectator play. They may be worried that the child is lonely or afraid of interacting with others. But developmental researchers insist that this is a vital stage of development, providing benefits such as:

  • Learning which types of social behavior are acceptable or not
  • Discovering how objects or materials are used and for what purpose
  • Preparing them for the types of behavior they should engage in when they do eventually switch to social play

Observation is crucial to development throughout life. Leading social-cognitive psychologist, Albert Bandura, revealed to the world the idea of behavior modeling, which is where children will perform the same behaviors they observe. Allowing children to observe others playing and engaging in healthy social and environmental interactions provides children with a basis for then going on to repeat those very same behaviors themselves, especially when they reach school age.

Even adults engage in observational play, as people-watching is a common pastime for adults of all ages. Similarly with children, adults learn the current rules for social interactions, as well as other things pertinent to life in a social environment. Kids can also benefit from observing adults themselves at play. Watching grown-ups around them having fun and entertaining themselves can teach children about the rules for social play.

To encourage onlooker play, play areas should be open and expansive, providing children with room to step back and spectate. Benches, seating areas or other comfortable and inviting spaces allow children to sit back and watch others play, taking in the information from their environment without worry. Learn more about how outdoor playgrounds benefit kids in all forms of play, including non-social onlooker play.

View Playground Seating

Examples of Onlooker Play

Children learn through observation during this stage, developing language and social skills. This observation is key in the development of play. Examples of onlooker play include:

  • Watching other children play or work in the classroom
  • Observing others play with blocks
  • Watching others engage in imaginative play

4. Parallel Play

The fourth stage of Parten’s six stages of play is parallel play, which is the first of the social  levels of play. By the parallel play stage, children are now playing alongside others, though they aren’t playing directly with them. During parallel play, a child may use the same or similar toys as other children and play in the same area while never actually overlapping or directly interacting.

Parallel play is also called adjacent play or social coaction.

Toddler playground

It’s commonly seen in toddlers who haven’t yet learned sharing skills but want to be around other children anyway. This is why during parallel play, a child will have their blocks, cars or books, and other children will have their own, too. While children are still playing independently at this stage, experts say it’s a type of play that behaves as a warm-up to eventually engaging in fully social behavior.

Some of the benefits of parallel play include:

  • Practicing social skills with others
  • Learning the rules of interaction with peers
  • Mimicking behaviors in preparation for cooperating with others

Parallel play is common among siblings. Both siblings may play with the same blocks but construct different things or imagine different scenarios. It’s also common in daycares or preschools where children will share the same arts and crafts supplies but work separately on their own creations. Parents often still encourage play dates during this stage because even though young children won’t directly interact with other children, it still exposes them to a social setting so they can familiarize themselves at their own pace.

Parallel play is an important transition phase for young children. In the previous stages, particularly solitary and onlooker play, children are reserved and hesitant to join in. Before diving straight into total socialization, parallel play allows children to build both skills and confidence gradually. Toddlers often want to use their newly found independent skills of play, but they still don’t yet see others as someone to interact with.

Outdoor playgrounds are the perfect place for young children to engage in parallel play. Whether it’s a bunny climber, a digger or a classic swing set, there are plenty of opportunities for kids in the parallel play stage to play alongside others while still being able to do their own thing.

Examples of Parallel Play

Parallel play is commonly observed during the toddler and preschool years. Examples of parallel play include two children playing with cars side by side without acknowledging each other or building their blocks next to each other without collaboration.

Parallel play can also take place in the sandbox as children each build their own sandcastles. Children are likely to mimic each other’s behavior during this type of play.

5. Associative Play

The fifth stage of Parten’s six stages of play, associative play is a social form of play that has transitioned away from purely playing alone. Children in the fifth stage of play are now truly playing with others though they may still be immersed in their own storylines.

During associative play, children share toys, books, supplies and other materials, but the focus of the play is on interacting with the other kids. Rather than choosing specific items to play with, associative playing children choose other children to play with, demonstrating great interest for the first time in what other kids are up to.

children in playground maze

Some of the benefits of associative play include:

  • Applying the skills they learned independently
  • Practicing social rules they picked up during onlooker play
  • Developing confidence in their ability to interact with and be accepted socially by other kids

While children interact and cooperate more during associative play than they do during the previous stages, children at this stage are still operating based on their own unique goals. For example, two kids might be sharing the same blocks, but one child imagines it to be a bus while the other child plays with it as a race car.

Teachers and caregivers may start to see children engaging and interacting with one another by asking questions to other kids when they’re playing associatively. This social dialogue represents an enormous shift from previous stages because now children are able to practice their play skills and their language and communication skills. Communication practice may come up especially during scenarios where children must take turns playing with limited resources or in a small space. Associative play presents an opportunity to negotiate with other children and practice problem solving skills, setting them up for success in the final stage of play.

Adults can help kids engage in associative play and develop their social skills by taking their children to playgrounds. Associative play is abundant among young children in public parks. A popup tent climber or musical elements, like concerto chimes, allow children to share the same objects and space while still maintaining their own storylines.

Examples of Associative Play

Associative play might include two children working on the same drawing or playing dress-up together without any specific roles or rules. During this form of play, children learn to share ideas, listen, communicate, cooperate, collaborate and negotiate.

Associative play allows children to develop their social skills and form friendships. It sets the foundation for more complex and organized forms of play such as cooperative play and team sports.

6. Cooperative Play

The sixth and last stage of Parten’s six stages of play is cooperative play. When a child reaches the stage of cooperative play, they are fully socializing with other children. They are now interested in both the people they play with and activities they are doing. Children now share the same space and toys, and they make up rules and storylines together, participating in an agreed-upon world aimed toward reaching a specific goal. Children in this stage of play may begin assigning roles to group members and become more formalized with a designated leader.

Kids arrive at the stage of cooperative play at their own pace. But typically, after the toddler stage, most kids are ready to participate in coordinated games and activities with other children. Once the child has reached this stage, they are considered fully developed in play skills, according to Parten’s theory. Whether it’s a sports team, a theater production or games at recess, kids who have reached cooperative play can fully immerse themselves into the social environment with other kids.

The benefits of cooperative play include:

  • Applying and using all the skills they’ve acquired throughout the previous five stages
  • Developing teamwork skills that will serve them throughout their lives
  • Learning problem-solving skills, particularly when it comes to navigating rules of games

Because children already spent time in stage five developing their language, communication and negotiation skills, children often quickly transition from the previous stage to the sixth stage, and this transition is fairly smooth.

During this time, children may still need help understanding certain social interactions and rules, so caregivers are encouraged to offer support to help their children integrate these skills. When children of different stages of development play together, it can create conflict, which is a normal part of the early play process.

Teacher helping with homework

Emotional support is especially helpful when conflicts arise to help prevent kids from being discouraged by playing with others.

Examples of Cooperative Play

Imaginative play, board games and sports are all examples of ways that kids engage in cooperative play. Children also engage in cooperative play on playgrounds, whether it’s at school with people they know or in public parks with kids they have never met. Playground components like the Trippple Racer Slidelog hop or the AeroGlider encourage children to cooperate together to create their own games and competitions among themselves.

Embrace Every Stage of Childhood Play With Playworld Products

No matter the age, play is an essential component of child development. Kids of all ages and stages need fun, engaging, safe and suitable playgrounds and games to immerse themselves in. Outdoor play, in particular, is beneficial for children in the digital age. Knowing about the stages of play can empower stakeholders to build outdoor playgrounds that are inclusive to kids of all ages.

For safe, durable and engaging playground equipment, choose Playworld. For over 4 decades, Playworld has been designing and manufacturing playground and fitness equipment to help foster healthy development in children. For more information on how we can help you design and bring to life a playground that meets the needs of children at all stages of development, contact Playworld.

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