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The Importance of Play

Published November 22nd, 2022 by Jacqueline Chin

Blog author: Dr. Ann Marie Ginsberg


In 1929, Mildred Parten, an American sociologist, defined 6 stages of play during her research. Parten's 6 stages of play are:

  1. Unoccupied Play
  2. Solitary Play
  3. Onlooker Play
  4. Parallel Play
  5. Associative Play
  6. Cooperative Play

The way your child is playing helps us see many things. The stages of play are associated with developmental milestones. That is, if you do not see your child accomplishing the associated characteristics, you might want to speak with your pediatrician regarding a possible developmental delay.


Unoccupied Play

can be defined by Parten as "sensory activities that lack focus or narrative." In these earliest moments of life (birth – 3 months) newborns have a lack of social interaction and focus. This is normal. Language at this stage is also very limited or non-existent. During this stage, your newborn is exploring its world. Shaking toys and hitting mobile devices is helping them develop depth perception and tactile skills.


Solitary Play

takes place from 3 months to 2.5 years and involves a child playing alone with little interest in toys or other activities outside their immediate area. Aligned with its name, solitary, a child will often have little or no interest in adults or other children during their play. During this stage, you might observe that there is greater focus and sustained interest in one toy, and from that toy they might begin to create a story narrative. You might not understand what they are saying but you can see the increased engagement with the toy, despite the disinterest with other children or adults. Sometimes during a play date, children will play near each other but not together. This is an example of what solitary play looks like, and it is very standard during this time of life.

Are you thinking of your role in Solitary Play? Although they are in their own little world, this is the time for you to think about the stories your child is creating in play and notice the little developments each day. Although you want to have a full conversation with them now, it is best to wait until they start to speak. You will be wishing for this time back to watch them exploring this new world in the joy and wonder of solitary play.


Onlooker Play

is the stage when kids first notice other kids. From 2.5 to 3.5 years of age, some kids will watch other kids play. Observation is a large part of their growth. You might notice a hesitation on their part, which is completely normal as “new” is a concept that can bring about fear. As the parent, you might want to bridge the gap and help them play with the other child. Be still and have patience. Each development stage is important, and kids thrive when they decide when the time is right. You might remember this from potty training! Every child grows differently and at their own rate. A parent’s job is to love and encourage them, and they will thrive!


Parallel Play

is the next stage. Typically, children are between 3.5 and 4 years old. Parallel play can be observed as two children playing near each other but not together. The main thing to notice is the proximity/nearness and the sharing of toys. If you have older children, you might see them play with the same toys or color together – sharing the crayons but each with their own coloring book. As a parent, you are usually excited until fighting starts when someone doesn't want to share anymore. Knowing this will probably happen, speak to your older children ahead of time and ask them to be patient with their younger siblings/playmates. Asking them ahead of time will help them feel more in control as opposed to saying, "give it to them – they are younger." Many times, children that have older siblings or cousins grow faster through the numerous models that are available to imitate. As parents, you can play beside them. This is a great stage to talk about feelings – their own and others’. This helps to bridge the gap from their alone play to noticing the activity and feelings of others.


Associate Play

normally happens between 4 and 4.5 years old. Although they aren't playing with each other cooperatively, they are acknowledging each other. Personal Space sometimes is a difficult concept at this age. Depending on the level of communication, children might ask each other questions. Problem-solving skills are emerging as they might need to wait to play with a toy. Timers are a great visual cue for children to measure time. Sand timers are better than digital since the child might be distracted to use them. Children enjoy watching the sand go down and know their time to get what they want is getting closer. Remember to remind them that they can't touch the timer as children thrive in structured and organized settings.


Cooperative Play

is the last stage of play usually emerging around 4.5 years old. Parten defines it as "fully integrated social group play. The children will have the same goals, assign one another roles in the game, and collaborate to achieve their set game play goals." During this stage, children play games together with common goals and understand simple rules, they learn about winning and losing as well. Children may join organized sports, and board games can become a new favorite family activity.


Play is an important part of children's learning and development. Don't underestimate the value of play and the skills they are learning cognitively (through problem-solving) and physically (like running on the playground and learning to use new equipment.) Through play, they also learn and expand their vocabulary and literacy skills as they talk with peers and hear the stories you are reading them. Last but not least, children learn their social skills which will be useful to them throughout their lives.


So, find meaningful time, in age-appropriate activities each day to play with your child! Play reduces stress and is a wonderful time to have meaningful conversations about their feelings and what's happening in school. Play is fun – enjoy!




Parten, M. (1929). An analysis of social participation, leadership, and other factors in preschool play groups. Retrieved from:
Parten, M. (1932). Social participation among preschool children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 27(3): 243–269. doi: 10.1037/h0074524.
Parten, M. (1933). Leadership among preschool children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 27(4): 430–440. doi: 10.1037/h0073032.
Parten, M. (1933). Social play among preschool children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 28(2): 136–147. doi: 10.1037/h0073939.
Parten, M. & Newhall, S. (1943). Social behavior of preschool children. In Barker, R., Kounin, J. & Wright, H. (Eds.). Child behavior and development: A course of representative studies (pp. 509–525). New York: McGraw-Hill.

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