The stages of play in early childhood

The stages of play in early childhood follow a logical pattern. This pattern is best explained by Mildred Parler’s thesis on the six stages of play.

Parler’s stages of Play Outlined

Parlers six stages of play covers the stages of play that a child progresses through in their first five years of life. The child will progress through these stages lineally at their own pace. The six stages are unoccupied play, solitary play, onlooker play, parallel play, associative play and cooperative play.

The 6 Stages of Play

Play can be structured or unstructured, play simply involves any activity that the child perceives to be fun. Play helps to learn and develop essential skills that they will utilise throughout their lifetime.

The six stages of play explained are:

Unoccupied Play (0-3 months)

At this stage the child is coming to terms with their environment and observing the world. Play begins as they move their arms and legs without any real purpose. Unoccupied play may include such activities as picking up and shaking toys or striking at a play mobile.

Solitary Play (0-2 years)

This stage of play involves the child focusing on a specific activity and shows little or no interest in what others may or may not be doing. While solitary play is a progression through Parten’s stages of play, it remains a normal part of older children’s and even adults play cycles. Solitary play may be observable when a child demonstrates an ability to focus on one toy for more than a minute.

Onlooker Play (2 years)

Is perhaps the first sign of a child’s interest in socialisation emerging. As the term suggests, the child takes on the role of observer of other children playing. They will often move closer to other children in order to listen and watch, but at this stage they have not developed the confidence or social skills to interact with others. Listening and watching are natural forms of learning and the child is learning how to interact with others through observation.

Parallel Play (2-3 years)

Parallel play often involves the child mimicking another’s play activities and usually within close proximity to them. At this stage, children will often share resources while keeping some distance between each other. They are still very much acting independently but will actively observe and mimic. There is still very little direct communication at this stage but this needs to be a natural precursor to the next level of Parten stages of play – Associative Play.

Associate Play (2-3 years)

Associate play is a natural progression from parallel play with children now prepared to acknowledge and interact with each other. While children in this phase are happy to share resources and acknowledge each other, they still largely operate on an individual level with individual play goals.

At this stage children will ask questions about each other’s play and willingly negotiate sharing of resources. They are still primarily focused on their own goals and are comfortable working side by side on their own individual tasks.

Cooperative Play (4-6 years)

Cooperative play is the logical extension of associative play as children become more confident and socially interactive. During this stage, children engage in what could be described as “full play,” where common goals are shared within a game. Roles are often assigned and swapped as the game progresses.

Cooperative play helps children to develop socially, although there will be hurdles to overcome along the way as they learn such values as sharing, taking turns and compromise. There are many examples of cooperative play, some prime ones being organised sports, role playing activities where children can unleash their imagination and board games  Cooperative play is seen as a key factor in developing social interaction as it presents opportunities to see different perspectives and review existing ideas.

Evaluating Parten’s Stages of Play

The six stages of play allow educators and carers to evaluate stages of play in early childhood against an accepted framework. Importantly from an educational perspective, the theory acknowledges the importance of social interaction and recognises that different types of play are critical in assisting in development. Educators can reference the theory and structure play activities accordingly.

However, there has been some criticism of the theory on the following rounds. The theory does not account for such play as risky play, symbolic play or imaginative play. Furthermore, the age ranges specified in the theory appear to be somewhat arbitrary and have been labelled inaccurate. The theory, its stages and age profiles can cause parents to become alarmed when their child’s play isn’t necessarily matching a specific play stage.

Generally, though Parten’s 6 stages of play; play is considered to be a useful tool in helping to track a child’s progress towards social interaction and engagement.