Cincinnati Family Magazine

Your # 1 Hometown Family Resource

July 19, 2024

Stages of Play

Put your busy schedule on hold as often as possible and just sit and play with your kids!

Play is an “activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation, especially by children.” It is an essential part of childhood and equally essential to your child’s growth, development and health.

Play is not only fun for kids, but it helps with their socialization skills, cognitive ability, motor skills (such as jumping, running, and writing) and overall emotional well-being.

Leah Casuto, M.D., a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist at the Lindner Center of Hope, shares a statement from Ahren Hoffman, CTRS, CPE:

“Play is the very fuel children use to explore the world, develop skills and practice emotions.”

Children that don’t engage in play are often found to not engage in social situations well or respond appropriately to new environments.

“Play is so essential to development, that the UN High Commission for Human Rights recognized play as the right of every child,” says Casuto.

When children engage in play, they can practice skills and grow in more ways than one.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also emphasizes the importance of play.

 “Research demonstrates that developmentally appropriate play with parents and peers is a singular opportunity to promote the social, emotional, cognitive, language and self-regulation skills that build executive function and a prosocial brain. Furthermore, play supports the formation of the safe, stable, and nurturing relationships with all caregivers that children need to thrive.

“Play is not frivolous: it enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function (i.e., the process of learning, rather than the content), which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions.”


Developed by Mildred Parten, an American sociologist and researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, in 1932, Parten defined six stages of play which include: unoccupied play, solitary play, onlooker play, parallel play, associative play and social/cooperative play. The six stages of play can occur at any time during your child’s development.

Play where a child isn’t actually playing. They are indeed quite stationary. The child may be making random movements, with no defined purpose. However, there is a defined purpose, this stage of play helps get the child ready for future stages of play and exploration through physical interactions (touch, see, hear, taste) within their environment.

Stage of play also known as independent play. This stage of play is common in infancy and toddlers. In this stage, children play alone because they have not developed the social skills to be able to play with others yet. They value alone time and activities that are of high interest to them. This time provides them  the chance to have control over an activity and be successful in that activity. Solitary play gives the child an opportunity to use their imagination which can lead to more self confidence in your child.

Where a child watches others play but does not join in on the play. This stage is common in toddlers.

“A child appears to be hesitant to join in and is watching and observing the rules of activities and actions of other children,” says Casuto. “They appear passive but they are learning.”

The child may ask questions about the play activity and engage in social interaction, but do not actually join the activity. They are learning information that they can later use within their own play.

Common in toddlers and is the form of play where children play near each other but not with each other. They still play alone, but within close proximity to other children while having little interaction with them. They are often paying attention to what the other child is doing, but do not engage. This is the start of a child’s interest in playing with others.

Common for ages 3 – 4 for typically developing children. This is when a child starts to become more interested in other kids more than the toys that interested them in the past. Children begin to interact with other kids during associative play. In this stage, children are playing the same or similar activities, but without any organization or rules. They may practice their conversation skills to collaborate about a common task.

Common for around ages 3 – 4 years old. In-cooperative play, children work together to accomplish a common goal.

“Kids begin to communicate more during play to share and interact,” says Casuto. “This is the setting for developing the social skills that are so important, such as taking turns, cooperating, compromising, being flexible, solving problems etc.”

Play is an important time for parents and children that many families may not be getting enough of. Unfortunately, parents face many barriers to quality play and adequate play time. These barriers may include: lack of time due to work or over-scheduling days; technology interference; and lack of safe play environments, to name a few. In order to best promote children’s development as they grow, we need to make time for them to play. Technology often interferes with adequate opportunities to play. Many children enjoy watching their favorite shows, however this should be done in moderation. When children spend extended amounts of time engaging in technology, they are not spending time engaging in motor skills, cognitive skills or social skills.

The Center for Disease Control recommends no technology under the age of 2. For kids older than 2, you can reduce screen time by setting tech-free times, using apps to control the amount of time your child uses technology and by keeping technology out of your child’s bedroom. Casuto recommends engaging in other activities to help limit screen time.

“Find ‘down time’ at places where technology is not available, such as remote areas, beach, campgrounds, libraries, open gyms or parks,” suggests Casuto. “And organize ‘no electronic time’ in your neighborhood so kids can’t just run to the neighbors (to use technology when you are limiting it at home).”


Casuto recommends knowing your neighbors, “so that you can better start playgroups when your children are starting parallel play.” Set aside time each day to play and create opportunities for your child to play, as well as get down on the floor and engage in play.

Let your child watch you play with toys that allow use of imagination such as blocks, dolls, puppets, etc. This models appropriate ways to play and provides your child with the opportunity to observe and engage when they are developmentally ready.


Harley Rotbart, author of No Regrets Parenting: Turning Long Days and Short Years Into Cherished Moments With Your Kids (Andrews McNeil, 2012), counted that there are 940 Saturdays that you have with your children before they turn 18. Out of those 940 Saturdays, 260 occur before a child’s 5th birthday.

Nine hundred and forty sounds like a big number, but they’ll fly by in a blink. Make each weekend as engaging and memorable as possible by playing with your child. Not only will he cherish the memories, but you will have a fantastic opportunity to bond each weekend while teaching them the importance of play and important life skills.

About the Author

Tina Pratt

Tina Pratt is the mom of two littles. She is a former PreK- 5 special education teacher that now works as a behavior coach. She enjoys being a tourist in her own town and finding ways to embed lessons into everyday fun!