Four Stages of Play

parentingages and stages

Developing play skills is an essential part of childhood. Through play, typically-developing children acquire the skills necessary to communicate with others, express and understand emotions, physically manipulate a variety of items of all sizes, build strength and endurance, and gain the cognitive skills to understand their world. What are the four stages of play a child goes through and how can parents understand which is which?

The Four Stages of Play For Kids

As children mature, their play skills move through four specific stages of play: solitary play, parallel play, symbolic play, and cooperative play.

Understanding Four Stages of Play - Solitary play

Solitary Play With Infants and Toddlers

The first stage of play is solitary play, which typically lasts from just a few months old until about 18 months old. During this stage, children tend to play alone or possibly with adults, with limited interest in interacting with same-age peers. They generally prefer basic cause-and-effect toys that meet their sensory needs, including those that spin, light up, and make sounds, and toys they can easily mouth. Babies and toddlers also enjoy playing games like peek-a-boo and tickles because of the cause-and-effect nature. Toys that are appropriate for this stage would include simple musical instruments (like drums, shakers, and tambourines), bead mazes, and activity boxes.

Understanding Four Stages of Play - Parallel play

Parallel Play - Side-by-Side

The next stage of play is parallel play, during which children are able to play alongside one another and may even be playing with the same toy or game, but show minimal ability to appropriately interact with one another. This generally occurs between 18 to 36 months old. At this time, basic reciprocal play skills may develop as well. This is when children begin to understand that simple play, such as passing a ball or car back and forth, can be enjoyed by multiple people simultaneously. Toys that are appropriate for this stage would include shape sorters, blocks, wooden puzzles, pull toys, and many of the fine motor activities for toddlers.

Understanding Four Stages of Play - Symbolic play

Symbolic Play - Preschool Play Pretend!

Symbolic play involves the use of inanimate objects to represent real-life activities, such as pretending that a basket of balls is really a basket of apples picked off imaginary trees or caring for a stuffed plush dog by giving it imaginary water and food. This stage of play occurs around three to four years old. Toys that are appropriate for this stage include baby dolls, stuffed animals, doctor kits, and dress-up clothes.

Understanding Four Stages of Play - Cooperative play

Cooperative Play - More Complex Fun

Cooperative Play is the most advanced stage of play. This is when children develop complex storylines to guide their play, occurring beyond four years of age.  At this stage, play ideas may include playing house with baby dolls, building a fort of blocks filled with action figures, or going grocery shopping and cooking meals in a play kitchen. Enhance your child's independence and engagement in the kitchen with a Montessori learning tower, designed to provide a secure and adjustable platform for hands-on learning experiences. Children at this stage are also able to play basic board games as they learn the rules of sharing and turn-taking. Toys that are appropriate for this stage include play food and dishes, fashion dolls, and action figures.

Stages of Play - Simple Guide for Parents to Understanding

Children of all ages use play to understand and imitate the world around them. Play allows children to explore, discover, and create freely within a natural learning environment.  Providing children with a variety of developmentally-appropriate toys allows them to use their imaginations limitlessly.

What stage of play do you see your kids being in?

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Dr. Carrie Wells is a college instructor, blogger, and work-at-home mother to two young children, Lydia (age 5) and Bryce (age 3). Carrie graduated from the University of Florida in 2001 with a Bachelor’s degree in elementary education and in 2002 with a Master’s degree in special education. After teaching children ages 3 – 21 with varying abilities for several years, she completed her Doctorate in special education in 2008 from Nova Southeastern University. In March 2010, Carrie began writing Huppie Mama, a lifestyle blog focusing on family, food, fun, fashion, and fitness.

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