Play is Research: Six Stages of Social Play

By Bevin Reinen

"Play is the highest form of research." ~Albert Einstein

Since the start of my career as an early childhood educator, I’ve always advocated for play. It’s no secret in our profession that children learn and develop best when engaging in child-led, play-based learning.

It wasn’t until I became a parent (to a now toddler) that I could fully comprehend how children progress through the various stages of social play. And, seeing it all play out (pun intended) has been simply fascinating!

At my husband’s softball game, I observed my son and another little girl belly laughing while mimicking each other’s stomping patterns on the aluminum bleachers. My husband shot me a glance from the dugout because it was loud, but I was too in awe of their “associative play” to stop it.

According to Mildred Parten*, there are six stages of social play with the first beginning at birth. It’s important to note that children will grapple with these stages at various rates and move back and forth between them also. The best thing we as educators, parents, and caregivers can do is provide early learners with time and space to explore their environment and interact with peers.

So, here’s a quick glimpse at what each social stage entails as well as tips for helping our little learners progress:

Stage 1: Unoccupied Play (Birth-3 Months) 

  • During this initial stage of play, babies make movements and gestures with no real objective. While it may not seem like they’re doing much, they’re actually discovering how their body works and gathering knowledge of their surroundings.
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  • Becker’s Tip: Provide them with safe, comfortable places to wiggle about such as on the Best Ever Baby Mat​​ or in the Sunny Day Activity Gym.
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  • Stage 2: Solitary Play (Birth-2 Years) 

Babies/toddlers think, explore, and create independently during this stage of play. They may become so engrossed in play that they do not notice the actions of those around them, and that’s OK! They are not being “anti-social.” Instead, they’re learning/practicing the foundational physical and mental skills needed to play with others.

Becker’s Tip: Give them a wide variety of manipulatives and organize them in the Toddler Clearview Toy Bin for easy access and clean-up.


Stage 3: Onlooker Play
(2 Years)
  • ​During onlooker play, toddlers intently watch other children engaged in play, but do not join them. Observing peers helps them discover the rules of play, as well as how to relate with others.

Becker’s Tip: Take toddlers to highly active environments with kids of various ages such as playgrounds so they can observe peers, and when ready, join in the fun!


  • Stage 4: Parallel Play
    (2+ Years) 
  • This stage occurs when children play side-by-side without engaging in social exchange. They may be performing similar activities in similar ways, yet they prefer to play alone. Parallel play helps children practice skills at their own pace.

Becker’s Tip: Sand & Water Tableswork great for parallel play!

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  • Stage 5: Associative Play (3-4 Years)
  • ​During associative play, children become more interested in each other. They do not yet have the skills to organize/coordinate efforts but will discover simple ways to play together.

Becker’s Tip: Give children play vehicles such as these Trikes and Riding Toys.

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  • Stage 6: Cooperative Play (4+ years) 
  • This stage of play is categorized by cooperative efforts between players. Children communicate their wants and needs. They learn to share, take turns, obey rules, and negotiate. Oftentimes, leaders and followers emerge, and children may require support from adults with problem-solving.

Becker’s Tip: Encourage children to engage in pretend play by providing them with “real-world” settings such as the Neat and Tidy Cottage,Becker’s Designer Kitchen Series, or Grocery Store.

 

Remember, play is powerful! And reflecting upon Parten’s stages helps us grow and develop critical social skills in early learners. Where do your students or children fall on this continuum?

 

*Parten, M. B. (1932). Social participation among pre-school children. ​The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 27(3), 243-269.

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Dr. Bevin Reinen is an educator, blogger, writer, speaker, and consultant who has held numerous leadership positions throughout her 15 years in education. Bevin holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, a Master of Science in Early Childhood Education, and a Doctorate of Education in K-12 Leadership. Bevin was named the 2011 Hampton Roads Magazine Top Teacher Overall and the 2015 Virginia Region II Teacher of the Year. Bevin is National Board Certified as an Early Childhood Generalist and was identified as an emerging leader by both ASCD and NAEYC. Her work appears in numerous print and online publications and she is the proud founder of TeachTrainLove.com.