Stages of Play + Activities for Each Stage

Play isn’t just how kids have fun, it is actually how they learn best! Many times this is referred to as play-based learning. As children play, they are developing their language and communication, enhancing their creativity, and improving their problem-solving skills. These are just a few of the amazing benefits of play!

According to Mildred Parten, a sociologist, and researcher of child development, children go through 6 stages of play as they grow and mature. By understanding these foundational stages, you will better understand your child’s needs for every age of development.

In this post, we’ll take a closer look at Parten’s 6 stages of play and suggest meaningful activities that will help your child develop in each stage of play!

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6 Stages of Play

1) Unoccupied Play (Birth – 3 Months)

The first stage of play is when a baby has no specific activity or object in mind to play with. Babies will often engage in random movements and facial expressions that help them to develop their brain and muscles.


  • Tummy time
  • Providing baby toys with different textures and colors
  • Baby play gym
  • Showing black-and-white pictures with high contrast

2) Solitary Play (3 Months – 2 Years)

In this stage, children will play alone, usually with toys and objects that are interesting to them. Children in this stage are still learning about the world around them and do not have the ability to share or play with other children yet.

During this stage, children will begin to use their 5 senses to explore. You may see them putting things in their mouths, or banging objects to hear the sound.


3) Onlooker Play (2.5 – 3.5 Years)

In this stage, children will observe other children play but do not yet engage with them. Children in this stage are still learning about social interactions, such as how to take turns and share.

Some parents at this stage become worried when they see their child still not playing with others. Do not be alarmed, this is a normal and healthy part of their play development.

At this stage, it is important to surround your child with other well-behaved children because they are observing and learning from those around them.


  • Going to the playground
  • Joining playgroups
  • Surrounding your child with similar-aged children

4) Parallel Play (3.5 – 4 Years)

In this stage, children will play side by side with their peers but not yet directly with each other. They tend to play with similar objects such as different toy animals, but they still will not play together with any cooperation.

This stage is vital for developing their social skills, such as sharing and turn-taking. Children at this age begin to develop more social awareness and are able to consider the emotions and viewpoints of others.

During parallel play, it is important to keep kids close to each other so they can begin to learn to cooperate.


  • Toys that encourage pretend play: toy animals, or play kitchen
  • Playing in a sandbox
  • Painting together at a table
  • Doing craft activities together

5) Associative Play (4- 4.5 Years)

In this stage, children are starting to play and interact with their peers. They will often play with the same toys and involve each other in their play. They can take turns, use words to communicate their thoughts and feelings, and share with each other.

Although the kids are finally playing with each other, the play is still not organized and they do not yet have a common goal.


  • A train track set with different trains
  • A play barn with different animals
  • A dollhouse with various dolls
  • Playground/playgroup time

6) Cooperative Stage (4.5 Years and Up)

The final stage of play occurs when children finally start working together to achieve a common goal. This is the most complex and interactive stage. The children are able to share and take turns, but also plan together on how to best accomplish their goals.

At this stage, children can collaborate, use problem-solving skills, and even make rules that everyone needs to follow in order for the group to succeed.


  • Role-playing with different characters (doctor and patient)
  • Board games
  • Hopscotch
  • Organized sports

Whether you have a newborn baby, or have an energetic toddler, understanding and supporting your child’s play is vital for their development. By providing activities that cater to their current stage of play, you are helping your child grow and learn to their fullest potential.

Remember that every child develops at their own pace, so don’t worry if your child is not yet at a particular stage. Encourage them, and they will eventually get there in their own time.

By following these stages of play and providing engaging activities, you can help your child reach their developmental milestones and set them up for success in the future!

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