[Types of Play] Stages of Development in Social Play

Social play can help your child learn to get along with others and make friends. But how does it help him develop the valuable social skills he’ll need for later life?

Did you know they’ll go through six stages of social play?

How does their play change as they get older?

And, how can you help them get the most out of their games?

Learn about Types of Play

Unoccupied Play

Infants don’t have the attention span to devote to activities for more than a few minutes. Yet, they’re fascinated by people and movement. If he is mobile, your child will crawl and may watch others.

You can help by giving opportunities to see new things and by talking to them about what’s happening. Learning to associate sounds with objects or actions will help develop communication skills.

Onlooker Play

As they get older, children spend more time observing other play. While they won’t play themselves, they may get involved as an onlooker. For example, a child may pass dropped toys to the children who are playing.

Giving them the opportunity to watch others play lets them start to learn the rules of play. Rules such as how to play with toys with other children. In due time, children will develop skills to understand why the rules exist.

Solitary Play

In the solitary play stage, your child will be happy playing alone. He may ignore, or even be unaware, of other children playing nearby. He may not have learned to share yet. You might need to intervene to explain respecting others’ time with materials. Furthermore, he may choose to wait until he is no longer interested in playing with the toy to share.

Children at this stage of development busy themselves with exploring their physical abilities. In other words, while manipulating objects around them they’re building creativity and imagination. Giving the opportunity, space and equipment to play will help.

Though, careful preparation of the environment is key. Your goal is to create a well-planned environment. Within this environment, the children have the liberty to choose materials. But, you have to be careful not overwhelm them.

Parallel Play

Around the age of two, your child will start to play alongside other children. He won’t actually play with them. But he might share toys or look at their fellow players on occasion. Two-year-olds don’t yet have the social skills for interactive play. Yet they’re building awareness of working and communicating with others.

Associative Play

As your child develops the necessary skills, he’ll able to share common activities. But, this stage is still quite independent. He’ll have his own tasks, goals, and roles within play. Furthermore, he would rather act alone than with other kids. Yet the children may share equipment or talk about what they’re doing. Teaching them to share and giving them the opportunity to share play space with others is key.

Cooperative Play

When your child plays with other children, he’ll be part of a group playing the same game. Whether it’s a sport or a fantasy world, they’ll be sharing common goals and rules. For example, kids may assign roles, negotiate changes, manage conflict, and communicate to achieve their tasks.

Throughout this process, they’ll be exercising their imagination and creativity. Plus, they will make decisions and solve problems. You can help by exposing a child to situations where they can join in team activities. But then allow him the freedom to get involved without your intervention.

A more shy child may need some encouragement to move out of his comfort zone. Let him know you’re there but allow him to experience to join on his own. By taking this approach, you will help his self-esteem and confidence.

Play is core to child development. Through play, kids learn the skills they’ll need in life. Your child will choose different types of play at various times. This depends on age, cognitive ability, confidence, mood, and/or environment. There will be times when he appears to step backward, but don’t worry – that’s the way kids learn. Social play is one of the best ways to help your child perfect important skills he’ll need as an adult.

Resources for Learning about Child Development & Stages of Play

Marnie Craycroft

Marnie hails from Maine where she spent summers buried in sand and winters buried in snow. She is the daughter of a nearly four decade veteran of the public school systems. Teaching has always been a part of her life. She founded Carrots Are Orange in 2010.

Carrots Are Orange is a Montessori learning and living website for parents and teachers.

Marnie graduated from Wesleyan University in 1999 with a BA in Economics. She spent nearly a decade working in investment management. In 2006, she earned her MA in business from the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business.

Marnie moved to the west coast in 1999 and currently lives in Boulder with her husband and three sons. She is Montessori trained. Her work has been featured on Apartment Therapy, Buzzfeed, PBS Kids, BabyCenter, the Melissa & Doug blog, Huffington Post, and Besides writing, passions include running (usually after her three sons), photography, and outdoor adventures.

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