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Playfully Developing: 6 Stages of Play Development

Updated: Jul 9, 2023

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it 1000 times, play is the language of children. Interestingly, it is also the crux of many developmental areas in childhood that later inform who we are and how we relate to others in adulthood. Developmentally, young children do not have the cognitive organizational structures to use spoken, written, and signed languages for processing complex events because the areas of the brain that govern language production (the frontal lobes) and language comprehension and development (temporal lobes) are still developing. Infants, toddlers, and young children cannot use verbal language in the same way that adults do because they are still developing language themselves. Instead, play serves a complex communication system that children use naturally to understand their world. If we pay attention, we can understand their world too.

In my work as a preschool teacher and director, I used to love when prospective parents of the school would give me the very common sentence, “all my child does is play all day when I need them to be learning for kindergarten.” I loved this saying because it gave me the opportunity to school the caregivers a little bit on the importance of play in the context of early childhood learning. There is no such thing as “just playing” when it comes to any of us! For example, the act of making playdough feels very much like playing to a child. However, the process of making playdough includes math, science, fine and gross motor skills, executive functioning skills (e.g., planning, organization, problem-solving), and social interaction and language if they are doing it with another person; and, that’s just making the playdough! We haven’t even discussed what happens when they play with it.

Play supports active and integrative learning, whereas didactic learning such as using flashcards and telling children what to do only taps into memorization skills which does nothing for building problem solving capacity. Let’s explore the 6 core types of play for little ones.

National association for play therapy, play therapy week 2021 picture. Child with black hair in a bob wearing a yellow top and poining at a child like drawing of three people.

1 - Unoccupied Play in the Newborn World

This is the earliest stage of play that we can see in full-term babies, almost at birth, to through age three months. It takes an observant person to recognize this early stage of play because it looks like random movements rather than the more organized play that people think of when they see preschool aged and older children. Unoccupied play is the foundation for later play development. This play happens naturally and does not need adult assistance or encouragement. It is actually important that adults allow babies this uninterrupted time to explore their space and bodies. Sometimes this looks like them moving their fingers and toes, and hands and feet.

2 - Leave Me Alone and Let Me Play (Solitary/Independent Play)

Infants and toddlers are naturally egocentric. Their worlds revolve around them. They are learning something new by the second and it’s a lot for them to process each day. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that solitary play is observable as the major type of play for the first two to three years of a child’s life.

Independent play is universal and helps children learn and rehearse what they observe and experience in their lives. In moderation, independent play helps children practice problem solving and builds self-efficacy skills.

Parents can encourage young children to play independently by initially staying close during play and checking on them at intervals that align with developmentally appropriate attention span limits. Children under 3 have attention spans of only a few minutes, five at best, Between the ages of 4 and 6 years old typically have attention spans ranging from 8 to 15 minutes. When caregivers check on them, you can comment by providing your observations of their child's behavior and/or emotional expression. "You look like you are really enjoying what you are doing over there." "You have been playing all by yourself for a while." "You look focused on your play."

Staying close while your child is playing can actually help them feel comfortable to try out a new task because they know that help is nearby if they really need it. It can also provide a sense of safety, knowing that if they decide to do something that is too unsafe, you will be there to protect them.

3 - I Can Learn by Watching Others (Onlooker Play)

Early preschoolers around the age of three or so, tend to do a good deal of watching other children play. This is especially true when children are increasing their expressive language. Observing what other children do with toys and how they talk about their actions, helps the observer gain vocabulary skills and build their confidence as they may need to work up the nerve to express words or phrases for the first time or while they are considering if they want to join in on the play. It can be a common reaction for adults to encourage young children to play with others, but it would be more helpful to allow the child to engage in onlooker play in these early situations. Caregivers, be sure that you are talking or signing with your children as much as possible to increase their vocabulary. When children say or sign something incorrectly, it is best to just repeat the word in a sentence without correcting the child. Remember, young children learn better through imitation, than they do through direct instruction.

4 - Let’s Play Side-by-Side (Parallel Play)

Have you ever noticed that when some young children play together, it looks more like they are just playing near one another rather than with each other? If so, that is called parallel play. It is the beginning stage of social play skills. This usually occurs around age three years old and can last a few months to a year or so. In this stage, children are learning from one another without actually interacting with one another. They may play with the same or similar items or completely different toys, which allows them to develop a familiarity of various ways to play with objects.

5 - You Do This and I’ll Do That (Associative Play)

Now we are getting closer to what most of us recognize as social play. This type of play is how children start to build friendships as we know them. Children are engaging in the same main play topic, but they are each doing their own thing. In a traditional preschool classroom, associative play is easily observed in a prek-4 dramatic play or block building center. Children may decide to all play “house” while in the dramatic play area and they have a somewhat shared storyline with each person having their own assigned role. They interact with one another suggesting ideas about how to change and manipulate the play. In this stage, they are asking for turns a bit, trying to problem-solve how to make the play more fun, practicing cooperation and of course, increasing their language skills. This play lasts until around age 5-years-old.

6 - Will You Play With Me? (Cooperative Play)

While some of the other play types still occur at varying degrees in later childhood, cooperative play is the most notable and long lasting. Typically showing up around age 4-years-old, cooperative play is fully integrated and social. Children in this stage of play are working together to complete goals (e.g., completing puzzles), learning and teaching one another rules to games (e.g., whether tag or a board game), and making up a theatrical play or dance to show others. This kind of play is seen in adults as we interact with our friends and try to build lasting relationships. Therefore, it is vital that children have the opportunity to develop cooperative play skills in childhood.

Play My Way to Healing (Play Therapy)

When children have had the opportunity to naturally fluidly engage in developmental play states, they are able to use play therapeutically. Play allows children to express their stress and traumatic experiences. Play therapy continues with the safety of a skilled professional who is unafraid of witnessing how the child views what happened to or around them. Much like adults often express their stress and trauma through verbal conversation with others, children show what they are feeling and thinking in their play. They retell their stories through play to experience what it is like to rewrite their story, creating empowerment. Through play, children become able to express what they were unable to show during the time of the trauma. Play therapy is more than play. It uses play as a vehicle for emotional and psychological change.


The takeaways here will be short this week.

  • Play is vital for human development.

  • We need play skills for adult interactions.

  • There are six basic stages of play development.

  • Play therapy works.

To learn more about play therapy and national Play Therapy Week 2021, please visit this other blog and website.

As always, I hope you take a moment to play a little today.


Dr. Dowtin


Did you learn something new? If so, share the knowledge.

Contact us if you are looking for a playful counseling for your little one.


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