The 6 Types of Play: How Your Kids Learn & Grow in Early Childhood

Learn about the six types of play and how to enhance these learning opportunities in easy ways!

Published July 7, 2023
Children using scooters in garden of a kindergarten

Did you know that there are different types of play? As a parent, it's easy to worry that your child isn't developing properly or isn't progressing at a normal pace. What many parents don't realize is that our definition of play is just one of many stages.

The "play" we picture in our minds, where kids take part in an activity together, is something that most children don't do until they are over four years old. Breathing a sigh of relief? I certainly did. Here's a look at the six main types of play in children, when kids typically reach these various stages, and how to enhance your child's play experiences!

Six Types of Play in Child Development

For a child, play is a powerful thing. It's essential to their development. Not only does it help with language learning, dexterity, cooperation, and cognitive development, but it's also where kids begin to interact with others socially. The question remains - just what is the normal progression of play?

Mildred Partenn was a researcher and sociologist at the University of Michigan's Institute of Child Development. In 1929, she theorized that children experience six stages of play between the ages of birth and five years old. Here's a breakdown of these interactions.

Unoccupied Play

Baby girl plays with toys

Unoccupied play involves sporadic movements, observation, and exploration of the space and things surrounding your child. In this stage, a child manipulates different objects, works on their self-control, and begins understanding their surroundings.

Typical Ages: Birth to three months

How to Enhance Play: Parents can utilize activity gyms, mirrors, high-contrast accordion-style books, and textured toys to help stimulate their baby's senses, build their motor skills, and prepare for solitary play.

Independent Play

A 3 year old little boy at home

Also called solitary play, this stage involves a child playing on their own, unaware of their surroundings.

Typical Ages: Birth to two years old

How to Enhance Play: Choose high-quality and purposeful toys. Remember that less is more. You want your child to get bored and need to pretend; this helps them grow. Montessori toys and activities are a great option for facilitating constructive and imaginative play

Onlooker Play

Sibling playing together with wooden toy

Onlooker play involves your child watching others play, without engaging in any way. You might think this is a sign of shyness, but actually, it is a normal type of play in child development.

This is when they learn about human interactions, different types of play, and how to manipulate various materials. Think of this stage as a time when your toddler is taking mental notes for the future.

Typical Ages: Around two years old

How to Enhance Play: Implement open-ended toys (like blocks and tiles), sensory bins, and artistic endeavors. Also, take the time to plan playdates - the goal is to increase their interactions and give them more opportunities to observe others. This can keep them on track for future types of play!

Parallel Play

Children focus on playing with eco-friendly natural toys

As the name implies, parallel play is when your child will partake in activities directly next to their peers, but they will not engage in any way. Many times, a child's actions will mirror that of their peers.

Other times, their activities will differ completely. This type of play can include instances like two children independently playing with toy cars on the same rug or one child playing with blocks and the other playing with a doll in the same space.

Typical Ages: Two years old+

How to Enhance Play: Parents can use the same supplies from onlooker play to facilitate parallel play. To help with this transition, you can use a large blanket or rug as their play space.

Put all the toys in this area so that your child will be close to their peers. Also, remember that while less is more, having multiple of the same item can bring opportunities for imitation and it can prevent meltdowns.

Associative Play

Three kids actively learning and playing in a nurturing daycare environment

Associative play is the stage where your child will finally start to show interest in other children. While they will not be working towards a common goal, like building a tower together, they will be participating in a shared activity in the same space. They will also sporadically be engaging in conversation or sharing items with one another.

Typical Ages: Three to four years old

How to Enhance Play: Social interaction is key during this phase of play. That means setting up regular playdates, taking your child to indoor and outdoor play areas that are designated for kids, and enrolling your child in early education programs.

Cooperative Play

pre-school girls friends playing

The final type of play in children is when your child begins to play directly with others and there is structure in the activity. For instance, your child may engage in a scavenger hunt, play board games, partake in team sports, or prepare a simple recipe with their peers. This type of play requires teamwork and communication.

Typical Ages: Four years old+

How to Enhance Play: Ask your child for help at home! This allows them to learn cooperation techniques and understand the excitement of having a common goal. Also, continue to socialize your child. Enroll in summer or after school camps, sign up for a sport, or volunteer at a community garden.

How to Support Your Child During Different Play Stages

Play is how your baby learns. Here are a few ways to support them in the process of learning and discovering the different types of play as they develop.

  • Be present. One of the best ways to keep your child on track is to be present at play times. If they want to join in on an activity with you or want you to help them try out a new skill, engage with them!
  • Be a resource when they need it. You can help your children by providing new opportunities, things to play with, and places to play.
  • Change up play activities. Also, change up your activities often and offer your child choices to get them excited about these opportunities for social interaction!
  • Finally, be patient. The ages for the types of play in child development are relative. This means that some children will transition sooner and others may take a bit longer. Remember, the more opportunities you give your child to engage socially with other kids their age, the faster you will notice progress!

Understand the Different Types of Play and Help Them Thrive

Parents don't need to micro manage everything that happens when kids play - they'll usually go through the different stages and engage in the aproppriate types of play naturally as they grow. Just by understanding the stages, doing a few simple things, and supporting them on their learning journey, you can help them make the most of every experience.

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The 6 Types of Play: How Your Kids Learn & Grow in Early Childhood