What Does The Play Stage Look Like For Your Child?

There have been many blog posts and podcast episodes on siblings, however, we don’t have any on a comprehensive guide to play stages and what the impact of them is on your child’s behavior.

There’s been a lot of discussion on play stages in ParentAbility, in the Parenting Posse, and it came up in a couple of those podcasts top so it’s top of mind. It’s top of mind because the pandemic has made these stages so much more visible.

All parents get that children “learn to share”…but not many parents are aware of play stages, what they are, and how they develop. And I’ve found that an understanding of play stages is a huge stress reducer for parents because we tend to expect children to display social behaviours that just aren’t developmentally appropriate. Hence why you really can’t scroll through a Facebook Mommy group without at least one post about sharing gracing your feed.

Parents seem to expect back-and-forth sharing and cooperative play as young as 18 months old and if you’re not aware of the arc of play development, you’re going to feel panicked, frustrated, and like a failure when your kid isn’t doing those things. Our expectations really shape how we interact with our kids, and therefore the lessons we teach them. Matching our lessons to our child’s stage of develop is how we ensure that our children learn as quickly as possible.

First Stage of Play Development Starts Right After Birth

This is what we called unoccupied play. Yes, as soon as we’re born, we start to play. This is when your baby is staring at the ceiling cooing and making faces. They’re looking around. They’re flailing their arms. They look like they’re just watching what’s going on around them, but these are the foundations of play. To play with a baby in this stage is all on you. You’re making faces and talking in motherese. You’re bouncing them, showing them high contrast things. This stage of play lasts until about 3 months old. 

Solitary Play

Around 3 months, you’ll notice your child starts moving into what’s called Solitary play. They’ve got their own game going in their head, and nobody else is in on it. They may interact with you if you make faces or insert yourself into their game, they may show you what they’re doing think of a toddler holding something up to show it to you and then going back to using it. This stage lasts until approximately 2 years old. You’re going to notice as we go through these that there’s overlap.

Children aren’t robots, they don’t level up.

They often have one foot in each stage, or will show signs of the next stage and then regress a bit, and then move up again. It’s not a linear process although I know many parents wish it was.

Grab the scripts for crazy-making behaviour and know exactly what to say next time your toddler, preschooler, or kindergartener isn't listening.

Development just isn’t that cut and dry though.

Onlooker Play

Usually, around two years we also see the development of onlooker play. This is exactly what it sounds like where children will often just stand and watch other children play. This is usually where I start to see trouble brewing as parents interpret this as shyness and try to encourage their child to engage with other kids and push them to jump into the activity before they’re really ready.

This stage is something kids duck in and out of for the rest of their lives and we’ve discussed the importance of observation in a previous episode so I won’t go too far into it again. Onlooker play is really imperative to children engaging competently in a new activity and it is playing. Watching someone else play stimulates the same growth and development that actually engaging in the play does…which is why it’s so vital to children feel comfortable engaging.

It’s like second-hand play. 

Parallel Play

This starts sometime around age 2 as well. This is when children will play alongside another child, in the same space, but they aren’t playing together. This is why two-year-olds are so bad for grabbing toys, they’re playing a game, and they see something they want for their game and they take it.

They have zero awareness of the other person’s use of that toy and quite frankly they don’t care because the other thing 2-year-olds are is egocentric. They are self-centered and that’s not a moral failing that’s where their development is.

They are worried about themselves. A hallmark of parallel play is when children are playing with a larger toy think like a play kitchen and they’re both playing with it, but they’re playing by themselves. If someone else picks up the pretend jug of milk they lose their minds because I needed that.

They’re in their own world entirely.

Associative Play

This starts generally around age 3, and it’s when kids start to actually play with other people. Going back to our example of two kids playing in the kitchen, if those kids are in associative play, they’ll share the resources.

Raj might be over here grilling steaks, Jemma might be over there feeding the baby. They’re playing house together, but they’re doing it separately. Jemma’s got her plotline over there with the baby. Raj has his with the steaks…and they cross occasionally, but that’s about it.

Another example would be two kids sword-fighting. If they’re engaged in a sword fight, and one kid knocks the other kids’ sword out of their hand, the kid who got their sword knocked off will whine and complain that they were playing with that and to give it back. They’re playing together, but they’ve each got their own game going in their head or children playing superheroes. You’re spider man, he’s batman, she’s black widow, she’s wonder woman but hey’re all playing their own game as those characters. They aren’t fighting the same bad guy together.

Cooperative Play

Finally we have cooperative play, and this develops around 4. This is the final stage. This is where children are playing together and they have a common plot. The kids in the kitchen are all getting ready for a birthday party and one person is the birthday kid and the rest are taking on supporting roles.

They’re passing resources back and forth, they’re all in on the game and contributing ideas.

The kids’ sword fighting if one gets their sword knocked out of their hand, they’re going right into hand-to-hand combat. They aren’t going to complain and whine for their sword back they see it as a function of the game. They’re going to keep the game going because they’ve got a common plot. The kids playing superheroes are all fighting the same bad guy and working as a team to take him down. They’re actually playing together, not just occasionally passing resources between their independent games.

You can see how this results in conflict when we have two children who aren’t in the same play stage. Most often we see this with siblings the older child is in associative or cooperative play, the younger one is in parallel or associative play, and they’re struggling to negotiate the use of toys and resources because the other one isn’t using them the way the other is expecting.

Now, it is possible for older children to “play down”…where they adjust their expectations to match the play stage of the younger child. Oldest children in a family usually get quite good at this. Children in mixed age groupings at daycare get quite good at this.

It does take practice.

Most of my oldest sons’ friends are only children, and when my younger son was still in associative play, they’d struggle to play with him when they’d come for playdates. Many have outright asked my oldest to tell his little brother to go away or to play a game that excluded my youngest somehow.

I’d hear my oldest explaining that no, he can’t do that, but here this is how we can involve him in the game without him ruining it. It wasn’t that these other kids were mean or rude. They just didn’t spend a whole lot of time playing with younger children. They spent most of their time with their same-age peers who were in the same play stage. They didn’t have the opportunity to practice playing down.

When we’re aware of these play stages, and we recognize the challenges between navigating playing between them, it changes our relationship with the behaviour we’re seeing from our kids.

In those instances with my son and his friends, if I wasn’t aware of the differences in play stages, I’d probably think those kids were mean, rude, little assholes. I wouldn’t want my son to play with them or come over again.

If I wasn’t aware of the differences between my sons’ play stages I likely wouldn’t have taught my older one explicitly how to play in a way that made sense to my younger one. I wouldn’t have set boundaries that made it easier for them to play together like our turn-taking protocol that I shared in the episode on sharing. I’d have just freaked out at my older son for not sharing and excluding his brother.

A long time ago, I had released an episode on the cycle of success and how our beliefs impact our expectations, our expectations influence our actions, and our actions determine our results, which reinforce our beliefs. This is a perfect example of that. The easiest bit to change in that cycle is your beliefs what you know to be true and that small change in belief, in knowledge, ultimately completely alters the outcome.

When you’re noticing kids struggling to play together, try to place them within one of these play stages and see how you could help them navigate those differences. Often that means separating them and that’s okay.

Sometimes it means acting as a mediator.

Before Logan could say to his friend it’s okay, he just needs a job to do so we can play the game with him…*I* had to say that to him multiple times. I had to show him how to include his brother while keeping his brother within his play stage. For instance, dressing his brother up at Robin and telling him that he needed to go gather intelligence on the joker or pretending to drop his own sword so that O had a chance to pick his back up.

If you’re struggling with implementing this-please come and join us in the Parenting Posse, we’d love to chat it out with you. If you’d like to go deeper into how your child’s development influences their behavior, come take our free class, and consider joining us in ParentAbility. Links for all of it are in the description.

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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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