We all want our children to grow up to be well-adjusted people with meaningful friendships and relationships, right? To share, compromise and play cooperatively? Well, they don’t come out of the womb with those skills, they must be learned! The interesting thing (to me, anyways) is that there are predictable stages of play that children go through before they’re able to play cooperatively.
Now, imagine your daughter’s cousin comes over for frequent play dates. You’re hoping that this will help her learn how to socialize and play well with other children. You’re right! But what it means for her social and play development looks different over the years…
We can expect that as our children grow bigger they’ll become more physically and mentally capable. We can expect babies to be able to hold their heads up by 1-month-old, roll over by 6-months, crawl by 10-months, walk around 12-months, etc.
There is also a roughly predictable timeline for the way that children play. And the ways that children play is linked to their social skills and development, as well as their learning capabilities.
Note that there is a general progression through the stages from 1 to 6, but any person–children or adults–can engage in a stage they’ve already passed through.
1. UNOCCUPIED PLAY
You hand your child a toy train. She looks at it with that adorable face of focus and curiosity. Maybe she touches parts of it with the tips of her finger. If she’s strong enough and the train is the right size, maybe she shakes it. Then she moves on to explore something different. She hardly notices that her cousin is there, and she certainly doesn’t play with him.
Remember when your baby was just sitting, and they could sit there for some time, just grabbing and exploring things around them? Oh, those were some glory days. I would prop my son up on the couch with some toys and do my own thing without worrying what he was getting into…
This is when babies are in the unoccupied period of the stages of play. It’s when they’re mostly stationary and their play is simply observing and exploring materials.
Their play may look totally random and pointless, but it actually helps them build brain connections and understand their world.
Social interaction hasn’t entered into their play yet, but that’s completely OK and expected. For now, their social interaction typically happens when their parents smile at them and talk to them, not during their play time.
2. SOLITARY / INDEPENDENT PLAY
Now your daughter is a little bigger, and more physically capable. She’s pushing the toy train around in circles, making sounds to herself. Maybe she’s got a point or story to what she’s doing, maybe not. But she’s completely immersed in playing by herself.
Anyone of any age can play solitary or independently–You’re kind of doing it now reading this post. Babies and toddlers, though, are really going through this stage.
Even if other children are around, they’re doing their own thing. Again, this is 100% normal and expected. I’ve seen many parents become frustrated and concerned at this point that their child isn’t playing with other children. I promise they won’t grow up to become anti-social uni-bombers!
This is just exactly where they need to be in their development.
3. ONLOOKER PLAY
The cousin picks up your daughter’s favorite train and starts playing with it. She’s not territorial or upset about it, she just wants to see what he does with it. Maybe he does something different with the train tracks that she’s never tried before. Every once in awhile she’ll ask him a question or make a comment, but mostly she’s just watching.
When a child is watching another person play, that’s onlooker play. It’s common around the age of 3-years-old but happens at all ages. They may talk or ask questions about the play that’s happening, but they don’t join in.
Adults do this a lot, for example watching sports or ballet.
When children watch each other play, they’re learning new tricks on how to play, but they’re also gathering knowledge on social interaction.
This is one of the reasons why I love mixed age classrooms. The 2 1/2-year-olds are able to watch the 5-year-olds. To the younger child, the 5-year-olds are super socially competent and can do a lot of things with the toys that they never imagined. The younger children can learn a lot from watching.
4. PARALLEL PLAY
She’s done watching. Now your daughter has moved on and decided to play with the toy horse next to her cousin. They aren’t playing the same game together, but they are playing on the same coffee table. Every once in awhile the cousin sends his train by the horse, saying “choo choo, watch out horsie!” and your daughter giggles.
This is one of my personal favorites. When a child’s social skills really start to develop, they start engaging in this period of the stages of play. Children will play side by side, and maybe even with the same toys or materials, but they aren’t technically playing together.
For example, they’re both playing with blocks, but they’re building their own structures. This helps with social skills because there often ends up being conversations and negotiations.
My husband and I frequently engage in parallel play. For example when he’s playing guitar while I read, or he’s playing a video game while I draw. We’re side by side and talking here and there, but for the most part, we’re engaged in our own activity.
5. ASSOCIATIVE PLAY
Age: 2 ½-3 ½
This time when the cousin visits, she doesn’t want to just watch. She’s learned a lot of new train tricks with all these play dates they’ve been having. She’s watching him as he sets the train up at the top of a ramp and lets it roll down. She copies him, putting her train at the top of a ramp and sending it down. They’re playing together–sort of. They have to negotiate turns at the ramp, but they’re both still doing their own thing.
This is sort of the in-between stage of play, between parallel and cooperative. This is where children are watching and getting ideas from each other, but the play is not a joint activity.
One child could move on to something new and the other would not react with a “Hey, where are you going? We’re playing this right now.”
This play stage really shows that the children are starting to watch and interact. They can see what someone else is playing and relate it to themselves and what they can be doing. They’re gearing up for being able to play together cooperatively.
6. COOPERATIVE PLAY
This time, when her cousin comes over, she’s ready. She’s excited to see him and play with him and has brought out the basket of trains and train tracks. Together, they come up with a make-believe story about the train going over the mountain and through the woods to bring toys to a school. They work together for some time, building the track, setting up the environment. They have to negotiate about who gets to control the trains, and how the tracks will be set up.
This is the pinnacle of social play for children. This is where children come up with games together, build a structure together, and just generally choose activities and play together.
The social skills aspect of this stage of play can be really challenging, especially in the beginning. It involves a lot of communication, cooperation, and compromise.
The best way to support this is to be available to help them learn how to solve problems. Putting in the time and effort to help them learn how to play cooperatively will really pay off in the future.
They’ll be able to build strong friendships, have friend preferences, and play together nicely.
WHAT TO DO WITH THIS INFORMATION?
Remember that while there is a general progression through these stages anyone of any age can–and should–play in the other play stages. Don’t stress yourself out too much about whether or not your child is hitting their milestones (unless they seem to be engaging only in unoccupied play at an older age.)
It’s been my experience working with hundreds of children over the years, that some children like certain types of play more than others. I’ve known 5-year-olds that engage in onlooker play on a daily basis, and that was not a sign of any developmental or social delay.
I believe we should be aware of and understanding of where our children are at in their development stages, and that includes play stages! When we expect our 18-month-olds to play cooperatively, we’re going to get a lot of tantrums and disappointed expectations.
On the flip side, if we expect our 18-month-olds to play independently and embrace the fact that sometimes they just like to watch, then we can meet them where they are and help them play and learn and grow.