Updated: November 25, 2023
Two different “stages of play” theories are commonly discussed in child development. Understanding the theory behind stages of play helps identify what a child is learning. Caregivers can then create better learning environments to support a child’s development.
- Parten’s Stages of Play: Parten’s theory includes 6 stages of play, moving from baby’s unoccupied play to complex cooperative play in older children.
- Piaget’s Stages of Play: Piaget’s cognitive development theory identifies 4 types of play related to the stages of cognitive development.
Parten’s Stages of Play Theory
Mildred Parten Newhall’s play theory was part of her 1929 dissertation. Through child observations, Parten Newhall created a framework to understand how play becomes more complex as children age.
Parten’s Stages of Play covers play progression from newborn to age six. This theory has six stages:
- Unoccupied play
- Solitary play
- Spectator/onlooker play
- Parallel play
- Associative play
- Social/cooperative play
#1 Unoccupied Play (Birth to 3 Months)
Unoccupied play is when babies explore their world using their senses. “Unoccupied” refers to playing alone without apparent objectives. They seemingly do not need interaction.
- A baby doing tummy time, clenching and unclenching a blanket, looking around, and turning their head towards sounds
#2 Solitary Play (3 Months to 2 1/2 Years)
Solitary play is when children play alone with no particular goal. They explore objects, their play space, and how to use objects to impact their environment.
Children are motivated to explore interesting items and toys. This essential type of play helps toddlers understand how their bodies and the objects in their environments function.
- A toddler exploring a themed treasure basket of loose parts
#3 Spectator Play (2 1/2 to 3 1/2 Years)
Spectator/onlooker play is when children watch other children play nearby.
At this age, children will begin practicing entering and exiting group play. They may interact for a moment and then step back again to observe.
Caregivers can be sure that a child learns from watching others. They are collecting important social skills and information to use later.
- A toddler walks through a classroom and pauses to watch children play in the block center
#4 Parallel Play (3 1/2 to 4 Years)
Parallel play is when two children play side-by-side, often with the same materials.
The children may engage in a short conversation or onlooker play. A child may imitate another child’s words or actions.
To caregivers, it may appear that the children are not playing together. In reality, children are collecting information and building social skills. Parallel play becomes a safe way to practice entering more complex play.
- Two children sit together at the table with paper and paint. One child says, “A mess!” The other child repeats the words and continues painting.
#5 Associative Play (4 to 4 1/2 Years)
Associative play is when children interact more during play but still focus on their own goals and interests.
The interactions, collaboration, and sharing of materials are more complex than parallel play.
- Two children take blocks from the same bin but build their own structures. Each child talks about what they are creating and may respond to one another.
#6 Cooperative Play (4 1/2 Years and Up)
Cooperative/social play is when play becomes the most complex and interactive.
In this play stage, children build social bonds and establish exclusive friendships. Children practice collaborating and communicating. Children get to take turns practicing leadership roles.
- Superhero play or playing house
Piaget’s Stages of Play Theory
Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development has four types of play:
- Functional Play: Exploring objects using senses.
- Constructive Play: Using objects purposely, such as drawing or building.
- Symbolic Play: Using objects in imaginative, pretend play.
- Games with Rules: Understanding and following rules in play.
Piaget’s Stages of Play describes how children learn about the world while developing cognitive skills.
These stages of play are different than Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development, which includes:
- Sensorimotor Stage (birth–2 years)
- Proportional Stage (2–7 years)
- Concrete Operational Stage (7–11 years)
- Formal Operational Stage (11 years & beyond)
Like with Parten’s theory, these stages progress through early childhood. Children navigate through each play type, building essential skills.
#1 Functional Play
Functional play is when very young children explore objects using their senses.
Functional play is object or loose parts play, where a child is using all their senses to understand an object fully.
#2 Constructive Play
Constructive play is when children use objects with purpose.
Instead of mouthing or gathering markers, a child begins to draw with them. Instead of banging or throwing blocks, a child starts to stack and build.
#3 Symbolic Play
Symbolic/fantasy play is when children incorporate objects into pretend play.
Children move beyond concrete thinking and use their imagination to expand their play. Imaginative activities can be as simple as using a block as a phone. More complex symbolic play includes role-playing.
#4 Games with Rules
Games with rules are when children understand and follow different types of rules.
Games with rules are often part of group play but can also be solitary. In this case, the rules are guidelines for when to move forward in an activity.
Stages of Play Chart
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How Accurate are Stages of Play Theories?
Play is essential to learning. That part is absolutely accurate. And in my 10+ years of experience, I have observed Piaget’s and Parten’s stages of play in children over and over.
That being said…
The American education system is based on a small piece of the global human experience. There is simply not enough cultural diversity in the studies by child development theorists.
For example, Piaget (a white man) developed much of his cognitive theory by observing his own children. And Parten Newhall (a white woman) was completing one-minute observations of children playing.
The stages of play theories are a great framework for considering a child’s behavior. As parents and educators, these theories can help us decide what children need from us. We can determine whether a child needs help entering group play or free time to problem-solve stacking blocks.