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Understanding Development Through Parten's Stages of Play

Updated: Mar 20


Three children playing with blocks and dinosaurs


The idea of “playtime” might bring to mind childhood memories of building with Legos and kicking a soccer ball in the backyard. While those are certainly types of play, childhood play is so much more than that.

Each type of play brings different developmental benefits that can help set kids up for life-long success.

This article is part of a series that examines different theories about childhood play, and how these theories can help parents understand and promote their child's development.


In this article, we will focus on Parten's stages of play.


In this article:


Who was Mildred Parten?

Mildred Parten was an American psychologist who made significant contributions to the field of child development. Through her research, Parten observed how children interacted during play and social activities, leading her to develop a well-known theory of child development that focused on six different stages of play.


Even though she developed her stages of play theory in 1929, Parten's findings have been influential in shaping our understanding of child development and continue to be studied by researchers today.


Why learn about stages of play?

While theories about stages of play may seem very academic, parents can benefit from understanding them for several reasons:


Facilitating child development

Play is crucial to children's growth and development. By understanding the different stages of play, caregivers can provide developmentally appropriate materials and activities that promote learning while keeping it fun.


These fun and educational experiences will inspire a lifelong love of both play and learning.


Identifying developmental delays

Generally, children progress through the stages of play in a certain order and during particular age ranges, so failure to engage in a particular type of play may indicate a potential developmental delay. For example, a 5-year old who does not engage in associative play might have some social delays.


A general understanding of play development can help parents identify areas of concern and help their children receive any necessary interventions or support as soon as possible, improving their outcome.


Encouraging socialization

By providing opportunities for them to interact, play teaches children how to get along with others and can strengthen important social skills like cooperation and communication.

With a solid understanding of the stages of play, adults can facilitate socialization and promote positive social behaviors, such as sharing, taking turns, and resolving conflicts.


Parten's stages of play in early childhood

We'll discuss each of the six stages in turn, going in chronological order of development. Just remember that every child is different and children begin each stage when they are developmentally ready.


1. Unoccupied play

Definition: Unoccupied play is a form of play where children are not actively involved in any specific play activity. Your little one may move their arms and legs, observe their surroundings, or just lay still.


Ages: Any age, but this is generally the only type of play exhibited in the first 3 months of life, when babies are still developing their play skills


Examples of unoccupied play might include:

  • A baby watching people walk by

  • A child staring out of the window

A child staring out of a window

Even though unoccupied play might look like doing nothing, it has several benefits, such as:

  1. Encouraging children to use their imagination as they ponder their own ideas

  2. Developing a child's observation and analysis skills through observing and learning from their surroundings

  3. Allowing children to relax and reducing stress


2. Solitary play

Definition: Solitary play is exactly what it sounds like--children engage in play independently.


Ages: Any age, but especially common in very young children between 3 months and 2 years


Examples of solitary play might include:

  • A baby looking at a board book

  • A child building their own structure with blocks with no help from others

A child building with colored blocks

Solitary play provides multiple benefits for children, such as:

  1. Allowing children to develop skills and interests independently

  2. Encouraging creativity by enabling children to explore their own ideas

  3. Improving concentration by allowing children to become deeply involved in their own project or idea

  4. Reducing stress and giving children the opportunity to relax


3. Onlooker play

Definition: In onlooker play, a child observes other children's play without joining in themselves.


Ages: Any age, but most commonly occurs around 2.5 to 3.5 years, when children first begin to notice and show an interest in other children's play


Examples of onlooker play might include:

  • A child watching other children play tag on a playground

  • A child watching an older sibling playing a video game

A girl stacking rings while her sisters watch

Onlooker play provides several benefits for children, such as:

  1. Developing children's observation and analysis skills through observing others' play

  2. Developing empathy by exposing children to others' feelings and perspectives

  3. Teaching social skills and norms, even if the onlooker is not yet ready to engage with others in play


4. Parallel play

Definition: In parallel play, children play independently next to each other, with each engaged in their own activity. They do not cooperate or play jointly, even if their toys or activities are the same.


Two children playing in a sandbox

Ages: The parallel play stage is most common among children between 2 and 4 years old, who are just learning how to interact with other children.


Examples of parallel play might include:

  • Two children sitting next to each other, each building their own block tower

  • Multiple children climbing on the same jungle gym but not interacting with each other

Parallel play provides many benefits for children, such as:

  1. Helping to develop social and language skills by allowing children to observe how other children interact and play. For instance, children learn about social cues, personal boundaries, and self-regulation.

  2. Expanding children's fine and gross motor skills by providing them with peers to imitate

  3. Encouraging creativity as children pursue their own ideas and interests

  4. Introducing children to the idea of playing with others, laying the groundwork for future cooperative play


5. Associative play

Definition: In associative play, children engage with each other in activities without necessarily following any rules or structure or working towards any common goal. Instead, they begin to share toys, take turns, and play together in a loosely structured manner, often imitating each other's actions.


Ages: Any age, but especially among 3 to 4 year olds


Examples of associative play include:

  • Children playing dress-up together, with each choosing their own outfit and character

  • Children riding scooters together around a playground without racing or choosing a particular destination

  • Children playing in a sandbox and sharing shovels and buckets, but not building a sandcastle together


Four children wearing a variety of costumes

Associative play provides many benefits for children, such as:

  1. Helping children learn important social skills, such as sharing, cooperation, and taking turns

  2. Encouraging imagination, creativity, and curiosity as children explore their own ideas and watch their friends explore theirs

  3. Developing language skills as children interact with peers

  4. Building physical strength and motor skills through active play


6. Cooperative play

Definition: In cooperative play, children work together to complete a task or achieve a common objective.


Ages: Typically begins around 4 years old and continues to develop throughout childhood and beyond


Examples of cooperative play include:

  • Organized sports, such as soccer, in which children work together as a team

  • Children working together to create and act out a skit

  • Children playing a board game together

Three boys in uniforms playing soccer

Cooperative play provides many benefits for children, such as:

  1. Teaching compromise, collaboration, and conflict resolution

  2. Developing empathy by requiring children to recognize and consider the thoughts and feelings of others in their group

  3. Boosting communication skills as children negotiate group dynamics and solve problems

Assessing Parten's theory

Some researchers have criticized Parten's theory for oversimplifying the complicated dynamics of play and ignoring the ways that cultural and individual differences can impact social play. However, her observations have been replicated in many studies.


Despite these potential weaknesses, Parten's theory is a helpful tool to help parents understand the different stages of play and how they benefit their child. With this understanding, parents can better encourage and facilitate their child's play.


How parents can encourage play

The following tips can help you encourage your child to get the most out of their play.

  1. Set aside time for free play--don't overschedule your child with organized activities.

  2. Provide your child with plenty of toys and games, especially open-ended toys that encourage imagination rather than battery-operated toys. Examples of this type of toy include blocks and other building toys, items for dress-up, and dolls or stuffed toys.

  3. Play with your child and follow their lead.

  4. Provide a variety of opportunities for play with other children, such as playdates or team sports.

Pathfinder developmental activities

Frequently asked questions

1. What is solitary play?

Solitary play is when a child plays alone without any interaction with others. It’s common among young children, especially those under age 2. During solitary play, children are able to explore their ideas and learn at their own pace without any distractions from others. 


2. What is an example of solitary play?

A child engaged in solitary play might:

  • build with blocks independently

  • look at a picture book on their own

  • draw a picture or work on another craft independently

  • work on a puzzle without any help

  • play with a shape sorter on their own


3. Why is solitary play important?

Solitary play allows children to develop their skills and interests independently. Children can direct their own play, encouraging their creativity, and focus deeply on their project, improving their concentration. Solitary play can also be a relaxing time for kids!


4. What is the difference between unoccupied play and solitary play?

In unoccupied play, the child is not engaged in any particular activity but is simply moving their body or observing their surroundings. In solitary play, the child is playing alone but may be highly focused and intentional in their play.


5. What is parallel play and why is it important?

In parallel play, children engage in their own independent play near each other but without interacting. It lets children observe and imitate each other’s social-emotional and motor skills and lays the groundwork for future cooperative play.


6. What is an example of parallel play?

Parallel play might involve two preschoolers seated on the same rug while each builds their own block tower independently. Children sitting at the same table without interacting while one draws and one paints are also engaging in parallel play.


7. What is the difference between solitary and parallel play?

Although a child plays independently in both solitary and parallel play, parallel play involves the presence of another child nearby. This provides opportunities for both children to observe each other and imitate the other’s activities and behavior, even without direct interaction.


8. What is an example of associative play?

Examples of associative play include playing dress-up together but not acting out a specific story, playing on the same monkey bars, playing in a sandbox and sharing tools, and making up individual dance moves to the same music. 


9. What is cooperative play?

Cooperative play refers to a type of play where kids work together to achieve a common goal. It helps to build teamwork and communication skills and aids in social and emotional development. Kids learn to share, take turns, and solve problems collectively.


10. What are some examples of cooperative play?

Examples of cooperative play include:

  • Playing together on a soccer team

  • Building a block tower together

  • Completing a puzzle with another child

  • Playing hospital with dolls or stuffed animals

  • Building a fort out of couch cushions

  • Designing and building an obstacle course together


11. What is the difference between associative play and cooperative play?

Associative play is when children play together in a loosely structured manner but with no specific goal. Cooperative play involves children working together towards a common goal or project, such as building a tower or playing a game.


12. Are board games cooperative play?

Yes, board games are cooperative play, even if children are playing against each other! Both are engaged in the same game and must follow the same rules for the game to be successful. Children often enjoy cooperative board games, where all of the players work together to win.


The Takeaway

With today's endless list of activities and busy schedules, carving out time to unplug and just play is easier said than done, but play is essential to helping children learn and make sense of the world. Every stage of play has a unique function, from a baby's explorations with their hands and mouth to an elementary schooler's organized soccer games.


By familiarizing yourself with different types of play and making sure that your child has the opportunity to engage, you are equipping them with key tools that will help them grow into happy and healthy adults.


Source:

Parten, M. B. (1933). Social play among preschool children. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 28(2), 136–147. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0073939


Bio of Reba Troxler


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