What Does The Play Stage Look Like For Your Child?

Today we’re going to chat about something that’s been on my mind a lot lately – play stages. Ever since the pandemic hit, these stages have become more evident and are sparking a lot of discussion in parenting circles.

Sure, we parents know that children learn to share. But, how many of us are aware of play stages, what they are, and how they develop? I’ve found that understanding play stages can be a stress reliever. It helps us manage our expectations and avoid feeling frustrated when our little ones don’t display social behaviours that aren’t developmentally appropriate yet.

We’ve all seen those posts in Facebook Mommy groups about kids not sharing. But here’s the thing – expecting back-and-forth sharing and cooperative play from an 18-month-old might be setting the bar too high. Understanding the arc of play development helps us shape our interactions with our kids, ensuring that our teachings align with their developmental stage.

Unoccupied Play: The Foundation

The first stage of play development kicks off immediately after birth and it’s called unoccupied play. Imagine your newborn staring at the ceiling, cooing, making faces, or flailing their arms. It might look like they’re just observing the world around them, but in reality, they’re laying the foundations of play. As parents, we engage with our babies during this stage by making faces, talking in ‘motherese’, and showing them high contrast objects. This stage typically lasts until about 3 months old.

The World of Solitary Play

At around 3 months, you might notice your child transitioning into solitary play. They’ll be playing their own game, inside their head, and no one else is invited. You might get a brief peek into their world if they show you a toy or respond to your funny faces, but largely, they are in their universe. This stage goes on until the little one is about 2 years old.

Don’t panic if you see some overlapping or regression in these stages! After all, kids aren’t robots. Their development isn’t linear – it’s a beautiful, messy process!

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The Observers: Onlooker Play

Around the age of two, children often move into the onlooker play stage. As the name suggests, they stand around watching other children play. It’s easy to misinterpret this as shyness but resist the urge to push your kid into the activity. They’re learning through observation, equipping themselves to competently engage in a new activity.

Parallel Play: The Self-Centered Stage

Next up, we have parallel play which typically begins around age 2 as well. This is when kids play individually but in the same space as another child. This stage also explains why two-year-olds are notorious for grabbing toys.

Remember, at this age, kids are egocentric and mainly concerned about themselves. If a child is playing by themselves with a larger toy (like a play kitchen) and someone else picks up a pretend jug of milk they wanted, prepare for a meltdown. They’re still in their own world.

Introducing: Associative Play

At around age 3, children progress to associative play, where they start to play with others. However, they each have their individual plotlines. For example, two kids might be playing house together, yet one is grilling steaks while the other feeds the baby. Their narratives may intersect occasionally, but each child is mostly engrossed in their own storyline.

The Final Frontier: Cooperative Play

The final stage, cooperative play, develops around age 4. This is when children have a common plot and actually play together, passing resources back and forth and contributing ideas.

You can imagine how conflicts might arise when two children aren’t in the same play stage. However, older children can “play down” to match the younger child’s play stage, which takes practice.

When we understand these play stages, we can better navigate the challenges that come with them. By adjusting our beliefs about our kids’ behaviour based on their play stages, we can change the outcomes and create a more harmonious play environment for our children.

So the next time you observe kids struggling to play together, try to identify their play stages. It could mean separating them, or acting as a mediator. With a little patience and lots of love, we can guide our little ones toward a fulfilling and developmentally appropriate play experience!

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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