How Kids Learn to Play: The 6 Different Stages of Play Development & Why You Need To Know Them!

Like it? Share it!


‘Play with me!’

You may be a parent who loves to play with your kids, or you may be a parent who dreads hearing this refrain and then you suffer pangs of guilt for the rest of the day!

Play is all about having fun! Any activity organised or unstructured that your child finds fun and enjoyable is considered play. But play is much more than just a fun activity for your child!

As your child grows, they go through different stages of play development.

While playing, children learn and develop important skills they will continue to use throughout their lifetime. Problem solving, creativity, and willingness to take risks are just a few of the skills developed through play.

Children who use their imagination and ‘pretend’ in safe environments are able to learn about their emotions, what interests them, and how to adapt to situations. When children play with each other, they are given the opportunity to learn how to interact with others and behave in various social situations.

We all know that children should play as much as possible — there is lots of academic research showing that play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children – and parents who participate in play gain a better understanding of their kids, bond with them and nurture their self-esteem.

Play is the way kids express, understand, and process their emotions and is crucial for recovery from the lockdowns and stress the pandemic has had on them.

How Long Is Enough?

Kids always want you to play for longer – I remember when  Molly was young and I played Ludo 3x on a Sunday when her brother was at a football game with his Dad – and I had to call it a day after that as there’s just so much fun two people can have playing Ludo!

Parents often ask me ‘If you have more than one child, does each need dedicated play time with you?’

The short answer is, yes. Getting silly with you, playing, chatting, laughing and relaxing is an important shared experience.

It bonds you and creates memories that last a lifetime, but it also shows your child that you love spending time with them which is good for their self esteem

The good news is, what constitutes play is less awkward and time-intensive than what you may believe.

Here’s how to approach playing with your kids in a new way.

  • KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid

Play Can Be Simple

Most parents of young children have struggled to answer this question: How do you play with a child who hasn’t yet mastered communication skills? It doesn’t take much effort.

Think: Engaging babies and toddler with developmental play.

This can be done with sensory toys, preferably ones that aren’t electronic, which allows your child to explore using their hands or mouths. While ‘Peek a Boo’ games can introduce the concept of “object permanence” (understanding that objects can still exist even if they aren’t seen), that’s a developmental milestone usually seen around eight months.

Remember: Young children don’t need constant entertainment — and playing by themselves shouldn’t be overlooked. Allowing children to explore their environments safely can be just as vital as active parent and child sessions.

It’s a balance.

Children especially little ones like to be near you, but that doesn’t mean you should always be on the floor. My kids loved pots and pans, rolling pins and wooden spoons, or cups to play with in the kitchen while I cooked which all helped them to enjoy exploring and independent play.

Let Your Kids Take the Lead

Play is how children express and process their feelings.

Children are always being told what to do so play offers them a chance to take the lead which is good for them.

Playing is important but CONNECTING is even more important so it could be you’re better at walking in the park and talking – finding those moments of connection where you feel present with your child.  It could be as simple as It’s putting your phone down and listening, maybe your good at telling stories at bedtime, letting the kids potter about in the garden with you as you plant seeds – it’s all about relaxing, engaging and including your kids – no matter how old they are

Children who use their imagination and ‘pretend’ in safe environments are able to learn about their emotions, what interests them, and how to adapt to situations. When children play with each other, they are given the opportunity to learn how to interact with others and behave in various social situations.

As Einstein said. Play is the highest form of research’ so be sure to give your child plenty of time and space to play.



There are 6 main stages of play during early childhood, all of which are important for your child’s development.

All of the stages of play involve exploring, being creative, and having fun. There is no right or wrong way to play or no need to be worried if your child takes their time going through the stages. All they need from you is a safe space to play.

Unoccupied Play (Birth-3 Months)

At this stage your baby is just making a lot of exploratory movements with their arms, legs, hands, feet, etc. They are learning about and discovering how their body moves.

Unoccupied play primarily occurs in babies, from birth to three months.

This is the first stage of play, and to the untrained eye, it doesn’t look like play at all! But babies are observing their surroundings and their random movements with seemingly no objective is actually known as ‘unoccupied play.’

Despite appearances, this is a stage of play, and it sets the stage for future play exploration.

As parents you don’t need to do anything special to encourage this play in your little one as babies do it instinctively. However, it’s important to allow your baby to have time to explore unchecked, even if it’s just wiggling their hands and feet in the air.


Solitary Play (Birth-2 Years)

This is the stage when your child plays alone. They are not interested in playing with others quite yet.

Solitary play is just what it sounds like—your child is playing alone and by themselves.  This type of play is important because it teaches your child how to keep themselves amused, as they explore and use their imagination creatively, which eventually leads them to becoming more self-sufficient.

Toys for independent play can be anything that babies, toddlers, or pre-schoolers can play with on their own, such as stuffed animals, blocks, toy figures, dressing-up costumes, play “tools,” dolls, lorries, push & pull toys, and books.

Any child can play independently, but this type of play typically begins to emerge by age two.

It is most common in children between two and three.

At this age, your child is still self-focused, egocentric and lacks good communication and sharing skills. If your child is shy, they may prefer this type of play at older ages as well.

Pre-schoolers may continue to choose to play independently, even after learning to play well with others, as it provides your child with unique opportunities to explore their own interests and agenda on their own terms.


Spectator/Onlooker Behaviour (2 Years)

During this stage your child begins to watch other children playing but doesn’t play with them.

Your child may watch what you or other adults are doing as well. Onlooker play is typical for children between two and three years old and is especially common for younger children who are developing their vocabulary.

Don’t dismiss the importance of this stage, it builds on the previous ones. It’s a healthy form of learning through play and a natural part of your child’s play journey. It could be that your child feels hesitant, needs to learn the rules, and/or maybe is the youngest and wants just to take a step back for a while to watch before joining in play with others. Watching helps them gain confidence.

Parallel Play (2+ Years)

When a child plays alongside or near others but does not play with them this stage is referred to as parallel play.

Put two 3-year-olds in a room together and this is what you are likely to see: the two children having fun, playing side by side in their own little worlds. It doesn’t mean that they don’t like one another, they are just engaging in parallel play.

This type of play begins around age two and differs from playing together in that neither child tries to influence the play of the other.

Despite having little obvious social contact between playmates, children in parallel play learn a great deal from one another for instance awareness of different types of play.

Even though it appears that your child isn’t paying attention to the others, they often copy the other child’s behaviour.

Like each of the other stages, this type of play is viewed as an important, progressive bridge to the later stages of play. Many types of activities, from drawing to playing with toy cars, can occur during parallel play.

Associate Play (3-4 Years)

When your child starts to interact with others during play, but there’s not a large amount of interaction at this stage. Your child might be doing an activity related to the children around them but might not actually be interacting with the other kids. For example, the children might all be playing on the same piece of playground equipment in the park, but they are all doing different things like climbing, swinging, etc.

Associative play is slightly different from parallel play, which commonly begins between ages three or four. In this type of play, your child is involved with what the other child is doing—for example the children are building a castle with blocks. As they build their individual buildings, they are talking to one another and engaging with each other but mainly working on their own. Typically, this form of play phases out by age five.

This is an important stage of play because it helps your child develop a whole host of skills, such as socialisation, taking turns, problem-solving, cooperation and language development & vocabulary.

Associative play is how many children begin to make real friendships.

Cooperative Play (4+ Years)

When your child plays together with others and has interest in both the activity and the other children involved – they are participating in cooperative play.

Cooperative play is where all the stages come together, and when children truly start playing together. Typically occurring between four and five years of age, this is the predominant type of play seen in groups of older pre-schoolers or children who have older siblings or have been around a lot of children.

Cooperative play uses all of the social skills your child has been developing and you can see them in action.

This stage of play can encompass many different types of play. Whether your child is doing a jigsaw puzzle together, playing a board game, or enjoying an indoor or outdoor group activity, cooperative play sets the stage for future interactions as your child matures into an adult.

Other Types of Play

While the above stages are important and vital to your child’s social development, there are other key types of play that also contribute to a child’s development. These kinds of play usually manifest once your child begins to engage in cooperative play.

Competitive Play: When your child is playing Snakes and Ladders or on a sports team, they are engaging in competitive play. Rules, turn-taking, working as part of a team, and the realities of winning and losing are the big lessons taken from this type of play. Emotional regulation, learning to be a good sport, and coping with defeat are learned from competitive play as well.

Constructive Play: Constructive play teaches kids about manipulation, building, and fitting things together. Examples include building with blocks, playing with Lego, making a road for toy cars, or constructing a fort out of pillows, making sandcastles, or having fun making bracelets out of playdough, Cognitive skills are being used to figure out how to make something work best, whether it is a block tower that won’t stand up or a sandcastle that keeps collapsing. This play also teaches the power of trying again. It’s also great for physical skills (both fine and gross motor) necessary to manipulate and control the chosen toy or material.

Dramatic/Fantasy Play: When your child plays dressing-up, and pretends to be a shopkeeper, teacher, doctor, or spy, it’s called dramatic or fantasy play. Through this type of play, your child is developing their imagination but they are also learning how to take turns, cooperate, share, and expand their vocabulary and use of language.

Physical Play: Gross and fine motor skills really come into play with physical play, whether your child is throwing a ball, climbing a tree, or riding a bike. Physical play encourages kids to develop fitness skills and to enjoy physical activity.

Symbolic Play: This type of play can include singing, jokes, or rhymes, drawing, colouring, or working with clay, counting, or making music. Symbolic play helps children learn to express themselves and explore and process their experiences, ideas, and emotions.


My thanks to


Related Articles

The Sue Atkins

Parenting Show

Discussing every possible aspect of parenting, giving you advice and support on topics which affect your daily life. Each free, weekly episode is bursting with practical tips, techniques and ideas.

Hi, I'm Sue Atkins

I will teach you my no-nonsense, simple techniques & give you hundreds of my expert parenting articles, videos & podcasts so you can get back to the business of having fun with your family!

As Seen or heard in