There’s no better feeling than watching your child grow in the early stages of their development. You brought them into the world, and now you get to witness them learn new things. It’s an exciting time for you and your loved ones.

It’s essential to acknowledge how you can aid in your child’s development. Children start exploring the world using their innate abilities. However, your role as their parent is important – how involved you are in your child’s life can directly impact them.

Incorporating play into your child’s routine can dramatically enhance their development. It typically develops in stages from when your child is born until they’re 6 years old, and you get to go along for the ride. Here’s what to expect as they grow.

The Stages of Play and What They Mean

By understanding the stages of play in early childhood, you’re better equipped to handle a playtime routine and build activities corresponding to kids’ development.

Here are the six stages of play, outlined by Mildred Parten, a former researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development. Children typically move on from one step to the next as they grow. By the time they reach age 6, much of their play is habitual, and they adopt a certain level of independence.

1. Solitary Play

Also known as unoccupied play, children in this stage begin to pick up toys and other objects nearby. Not much parent interaction is required, as it’s the earliest stage of exploratory play.

The main benefit of solitary play is that children learn to occupy themselves independently, which becomes useful later in life. This stage lasts from birth until around 2 years of age.

2. Parallel Play

Your child will engage in parallel play from 2.5-3.5 years old. This occurs when a child plays independently with their own toys next to other children who are also playing alone.

Although children may not be directly interacting with each other, this stage helps them learn how to play alongside others. Issues of sharing typically occur during this stage, so parental supervision is critical.

3. Associative Play

Once your child is 3.5-4 years old, they will begin engaging in associative play. At this stage, children start playing with each other and sharing toys.

Their social skills start developing around this age when they’re able to communicate with other children. Developing these abilities benefits children as they get to an age where they’ll be entering preschool soon.

4. Cooperative Play

Children reach the highest level of social play with their peers in the cooperative play stage, which occurs when they’re 4.5-5 years old. They take on roles during games and usually work together to achieve a common goal.

It’s at this stage that parents play a significant role in development. They can teach their children the value of compromise and cooperation during this type of play.

5. Games With Rules

After learning the importance of cooperative play, children between 5 and 6 years old can understand how rules are applied to games they play with others. There are typically winners and losers in these games. Children begin to learn that winning is fun, and losing may cause them to feel sad or angry.

Playing games by following rules is a structured and more rigid form of play. In this stage, you can set up games with guidelines for your children and teach them how to follow them.

6. Spectator/Onlooker Behavior

Simply put, the spectator or onlooker behavior occurs from birth and continues throughout all of the other stages. In this type of play, children will watch others play but typically make no effort to join. This is still a valuable type of play, as kids often will mirror the behavior they see.

Play requires parental involvement for children to learn and develop, and it also encourages them to use their imagination and be creative.

How Play Contributes to Growth

From early childhood, children rely on serve-and-return interactions for healthy growth. This includes any interaction with another human, whether it’s a hug or eye contact.

Serve-and-return interactions create neural connections in a child’s brain. Those connections build up over time and contribute to the development of their communication and social skills. Because of this, interacting with your child is paramount. Increasing the amount of interaction is a direct way to make a positive impact on your child.

If grandparents and other family members are around your child, consider having them play with them as well. There are benefits for both children and adults when they engage in quality playtime – older adults tend to feel joyous during the time they spend with their grandchildren, and children love the one-on-one attention.

There is no right or wrong way to play – all forms are encouraged and help your child learn the skills they need to grow.

Incorporate Play Into Your Routine

It may be challenging to get into a playful mindset for your child, but it’s crucial to their overall well-being. The benefits of engaging your child during each stage of play teach them skills they’ll need to succeed and move toward a life of independence.

Do you enjoy playing with your child? Tell us in the comments below.

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  • Great article! I think it is just as important for parents to play with their children. By doing so, you are constantly reminded of the joy of having children, rather than getting caught up in the daily grind & letting it all feel like a chore. My children are teenagers & young adults now & I still spend time with them playing board games, watching movies & simply spending time together.

    • My son is just at an age where we can play very very basic child board games and I love it. I can’t wait to continue sharing board games with him as he gets older


  • most of the time. sometimes need to remind myself not to interrupt their play as when they are playing with others or on their own it can also be very beneficial.


  • Beautifully put! Love playing with the kids


  • I agree. I absolutely love playing with my kids! They are so much fun to play with.


  • Something I find challenging is letting my child lead the play without me jumping in too much to direct him. I’m much better at more structured activities (eg games with rules) than I am with open ended play, but I know how much using his imagination benefits him so I’m trying to learn to relax and be guided by him more.

    • Yes that can be hard, but even when you set aside 10 minutes a day and aim to let him purely have the lead and praise him for his choices, that will already have a huge positive effect !


  • Builds up their creativity and imagination so much when we play together. Love seeing their growth each day


  • We play regularly, it’s just me and my son during the day so I try and find things to do as much as possible. However he has a play room and he can play freely in there for independent play to


  • Interaction with family crucial for childhood development and also increases social skills definitely.


  • My 4 year old enjoys more solitary play. I think since he is the oldest he is used to being on his own and enjoys it more that way, however he still loves to play with his sister. His 3 year old sister however always needs someone to play with. She doesn’t like playing on her own and never really has.


  • It’s refreshing to see the information I learnt at uni is still current as the best way to help children learn!


  • Wow! It’s so nice to see all the different stages of play and why they are so important.


  • I enjoy it a lot more now that my kids are old enough for things like chess.


  • I love playtime, it’s great for bonding


  • I used to love playtime with my boys for our enjoyment. Didn’t realise that it was good for them in other ways too


  • So vital indeed, that’s why kids who are neglected do not thrive at all. And babies can even die from emotional neglect.


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