How Kids Learn to Play

how kids learn to play

Play is a natural experience, especially for kids who are looking for fun and excitement throughout the day. Kids often use play to explore and understand the world around them. You may already know play is highly beneficial for kids, but did you know they must learn how to do it?

Though play is instinctive, kids still learn to do it in stages. Use our complete guide below to learn about the six stages of play for children.

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The 6 Stages of Play

There is no right or wrong way to play — whatever a child finds fun is OK. However, kids will still learn as they grow. That doesn’t mean they must follow set rules. Rather, they start engaging in different types of play as they grow and observe the world around them. How a kid plays as an infant will be much different than the games and activities they enjoy as a toddler. Children also develop at their own pace. Not all children of the same age will be in the same stage of play. The described ages are estimates, not set guidelines.

Take a closer look at the six stages of play listed below.

1. Unoccupied Play

Unoccupied play typically lasts from birth to around 3 months old. During this stage, babies are not “playing” as we would usually describe it. They’re learning how their bodies work, which usually looks like kicking or moving their hands, arms or feet.

While it may look like babies are moving around for no reason, they are starting to develop their gross motor skills. Encourage unoccupied play by allowing your baby to remain free of wrappings or blankets while they’re awake and supervised.

2. Solitary Play

The solitary play stage can start early in life and usually lasts until the child is about 2 years old. During this time, kids like to explore and play alone. They are not interested in socializing or sharing toys with other kids yet. Solitary play may look like kids touching — and sometimes tasting — the things around them. Kids may also start to get vocal as they enjoy hearing themselves babble, speak or sing.

Since solitary play focuses on exploring their surroundings, ensure your kids in this stage are playing with age-appropriate toys. Curious kids like to put objects in their mouths and noses, so remember this when offering toys.

3. Spectator or Onlooker

At around 2 years old, kids will become curious about playing with others. However, they won’t jump in right away. Instead, they’ll watch how other kids play from a distance. Observing is a natural and healthy part of kids’ development, and it’s how they start learning about social norms and unspoken rules.

Watching other kids playing can provide other benefits. They may begin to pick up new words, movements or other behaviors along the way. Spectator play is also a helpful stage for more introverted kids, who can learn by watching others and actively engage when they’re ready. As kids become more comfortable with the people around them, they’ll gradually move into the next play stage and start to interact.

4. Parallel Play

Most kids are ready for parallel play shortly after the spectator or onlooker stages. This stage also tends to happen around 2 to 3 years old, but it can vary. During this stage, kids are not yet willing to play with others, but they’ve moved beyond observing.

Kids will naturally begin to play next to one another while still playing alone. For example, one kid may play with toy cars, while another uses puppets. Even if they sit beside each other, their activities are clearly separate.

Though kids are not directly interacting, playing close to someone else helps prepare them for social play. While you may want to encourage two kids who are near each other to play together, it’s often best to let kids initiate social play independently. They will naturally begin to play together when they’re ready.

5. Associate Play

associate play

The associate or associative play stage often occurs around ages 3 to 5. This stage is similar to parallel play, as kids are close to each other and still have distinct goals and agendas. Unlike parallel play, during associate play, kids will begin to use the same playground equipment or toys. However, each kid will remain independent.

For example, two kids swinging on the swing sets are not necessarily together — they both happen to be using the same equipment. Additionally, two kids using building blocks may be willing to share the toys, but they’re each building separate towers. So, while kids are still not directly playing together, they are beginning to share interests and actively notice if others around them are playing with the same things they are.

6. Cooperative Play

The final stage of play is cooperative. Most kids will begin to interact with each other at around 4 to 6 years old. Instead of each kid playing independently, they’ll work together toward a shared goal, like building the highest block tower, seeing who can go down the slide the fastest or making up dances or songs.

During cooperative play, kids learn social skills and how to work with their peers. Once kids have reached this stage, they’ll continue socially playing throughout the rest of their childhood, though they may return to independent play when needed or desired.

Encourage Play With a Playground From Miracle® Recreation Equipment Company

Encourage play with a playground from Miracle Recreation

Providing kids with a high-quality playground structure can benefit kids as they move through the various stages of play. Since we offer play structures for kids as young as 2, our playground equipment can be there every step of the way of a child’s play development. Whether kids want to swing alone during parallel play or play with friends on spring riders during cooperative play, our playground equipment can provide endless fun.

Bring an innovative, high-quality playground to your local school or park by contacting a Miracle Recreation representative to see how we can make your dream playground a reality. From design to funding, we will be with you every step of the way to ensure kids get the beautiful and fun playground they deserve.