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The Stages of Play

What is play?

Play is spontaneous, voluntary, pleasurable and flexible and is typically done for its own sake (i.e. the process is more important than the product or end goal.) The power of play can help children develop important skills and prepare them for the world. Often in play, children learn academic skills like reading, language and STEM concepts as well as social emotional skill such as empathy, communication, problem solving and so much more! Children also get to know their own strengths and interests as well as the personalities and value of those they interact with.

“Play is our brain's favorite way of learning.” 

– Diane Ackerman

The Six Stages of Play

Researcher Mildred Parten of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development identified the following six stages of play. The stages are not linear and children often work through multiple stages and then backtrack to others depending on their needs in that moment.

Stage 1 - Unoccupied play

  • Children tend to be more still

  • Play appears scattered

  • Builds foundation for other stages of play

  • May look like babies or young children exploring materials around them

  • Practices the manipulation of materials

  • Helps to begin development of self control

  • Provides opportunities for children to learn how their world works

Stage 2 - Solitary Play

  • Occurs when children entertain themselves

  • Children may not notice or acknowledge others

  • Allows the opportunity to explore freely and master new personal skills

  • Prepares children for play with others

Stage 3 - Onlooker Play

  • Children sit back and watch others play but do not join in

  • Similar to adults ‘people watching’ children enjoy watching others play and learn idea for their own play later

  • Learn about social rules of play and relationships

  • See new ways of moving their bodies or using tools

  • Learn about the world in general

Stage 4 - Parallel play

  • Occurs when children play next to each other but don’t really interact

  • Children might do the same activity (such as feeding a doll or driving a car on the floor) but they don’t overlap

  • Not engaging in social exchange but working side by side, practicing skills and learning methods to engage later

Stage 5 - Associative play

  • Instead of staying focused on the activity or object of play, children become more interested in the other people playing

  • Children begin practicing the skills and ideas they have observed in previous play stages

  • There is space for children to try new actions and explore relationships and interactions

Stage 6 - Cooperative play

  • Occurs when children work together in a play scenario

  • Adopt group rules and establish roles for play

  • Often involves a lot of pretend play and conflict as children learn how to express emotions and problems solve

Facilitating Play

Here are a few ways to support your child by showing that you value their play as learning!

Observe → Sit quietly nearby and watch your child play. What do you notice about your child’s play?

Co-Play → Join in and play right alongside your explorer! How do you like to play? How does it feel? How does your explorer respond to you playing with them?

Mirror → A wonderful way to show you value what your child is doing is by doing it too! Notice how your child is playing. Then, sit nearby and imitate their play.

Model → Show your explorer another way to play with the materials and narrate what you are doing. It’s okay if they don’t play this way right after you model. Keep an eye out, and you’ll most likely see them playing it later. This is also a great way to help children develop cognitive thinking.

Wonder → Spark curiosity by wondering aloud “I wonder what would happen if we…?”

Sportscast → Celebrate play and attune kids to the actions of others by narrating aloud what you see.

Add a Materials → Quietly add a new materials to you explorer’s play space. What happens?

Ask Questions → If you explorer seems open to chatting, ask open-ended questions about their play. How do you know if your explorer is ready to chat? They may look up or make eye contact, hand you something, or talk to you first.

Join a Class

Looking for ways to learn with your child in a community of like minded families? Check out Tinkergarten with Magnolia Outdoor! We get together each week to play, explore and learn in the best classroom of all – Nature!

I hope you'll join us outside!


(The above article was written by Magnolia Outdoor and checked and supplemented by information from Michigan State University and Tinkergarten.)


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