The 6 Stages of Play in Early Childhood

stages of play

Play is one of the most fascinating and important parts of childhood. It’s a time when kids learn about themselves, their environment, and how they can interact. They also begin to develop social skills by interacting with other kids and adults.

What’s even more interesting is that play has several stages children go through as they grow up. Each stage is unique and has its own set of challenges for the child to overcome. Let’s take a look at each phase!

What is the Purpose of Play?

The purpose of play is to help children develop their social, physical, emotional, and cognitive skills.

Play is a vital part of childhood development. It helps children learn how to interact with other kids, practice new behaviors and problem-solving skills (like sharing), develop language skills through pretend play, build physical strength and coordination, and gain confidence by exploring the world around them.

While parents need to let their kids explore different types of toys and games on their own terms, they also need to be aware of the various stages children go through as they learn how to play.

What Is The Development of Play?

stages of play

While the play is important in childhood, we must remember that it is a stage of development, not an activity. The steps of the game are sometimes different for all children and can change over time. Play doesn’t exist in a vacuum; instead, it’s another aspect of growing up.

For this reason, we can’t just say that play will start at one point and end at another. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look at the different stages of play; it just means that they are distinct. For instance, we can look at a game as a developmental stage and still identify specific steps in which each child learns and progresses.

We can use the stages of play to understand our own children better. We can help them overcome any challenges they may face by identifying where they are in their development.

The Six Stages of Play

As kids grow, they go through several stages of play. Each step is unique and has its own set of challenges for the child to overcome. How well they overcome these challenges affects their success in later life. Here are the six stages:

1. Unoccupied Play

unoccupied play

Unoccupied play is the first stage of play in early childhood, and it lasts from birth until about 3 months old. In this stage, babies learn about their bodies and their environment. They’re also working on developing their motor skills by manipulating objects such as toys and things around them. This can include trying to grab a toy or holding at your face when you smile at them!

It is often referred to as “free play” because it does not require an adult or another child to initiate and direct the activity. It also serves as the foundation for all other play types later in childhood. It is just the beginning of the play, but it is a phase that an infant must go through to move on to the other stages.

Children in this stage do not engage in any play. They may be sitting, lying, or simply looking around without interacting with anything or anyone. They may also be watching other children playing and imagining themselves joining in.

Keep in mind that during this stage, their play is unstructured and sensory-based. Providing different materials and textures for your baby to explore is a great way to stimulate his developing senses.

2. Solitary/Independent Play

solitary or independent play

This stage is the second stage of play in early childhood. It begins at around birth and ends at around age two. Children at this age are starting to develop their own unique interests and learning how to be independent. They want to do everything themselves and don’t want help from anyone else. This is a great time for kids to learn how to play alone, as well as for you to give them some space so that they can develop their own creativity without being constantly supervised.

Through independent play, children learn basic skills like object permanence and the concept of gravity. During this stage, children also start to understand that they have their own thoughts and feelings. They invent games that involve make-believe people, objects, and activities.

Montessori encourages parents to create a Yes Space where children can safely play alone. Once you have discovered your child’s primary play mode, setting up an environment and encouraging further independent exploration is easier.

3. Onlooker Play

onlooker play

The typical age that children begin to observe things going on around them is between 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 years old. It is the stage when the child realizes that the world around them is full of interesting things to watch and explore. Children pay attention to the people and things in their environment—including other children, parents, siblings, and pets, as well as toys or cars. Also, they become aware of their own bodies as separate from others, so they may be fascinated by looking at themselves in a mirror.

This can be frustrating for parents because it often seems their child is not interested in playing with toys anymore, but this isn’t true! Your child needs to find their own way of playing with toys and will start doing so again soon enough.

During this stage, it’s essential to respect your child and honor their needs. Don’t push them to interact with others—let them develop their own interests at their own pace.

4. Parallel Play

parallel play

Parallel play is the fourth stage of play in early childhood development, and it occurs when children are roughly between the ages of 2 and 3 years old. This stage is characterized by decreased social interaction and an increased desire to play alongside others rather than with them.

In this stage, children begin to notice others’ actions less and focus more on their own experiences and activities. This means they may not be as interested in playing with other children or sharing toys as they were younger. However, even though they are less interested in playing, they still appreciate watching each other play without forming a relationship with them—it’s just another way for them to learn about themselves!

Parallel play also includes more solitary activities such as drawing or coloring on their own rather than with someone else during this stage. Parents need to allow their child plenty of time for solo play to feel comfortable exploring new places or learning new skills without pressure from others around them!

5. Associative Play

associative play

Generally, around 3-4 years old, children begin to engage in associative play. They can play and have a favorite toy or object that they use to act out scenarios in their lives. This is a developmental milestone because it shows that the child has developed a sense of self and can reflect on their own experiences.

This is where children can become very imaginative and creative—and they will start to develop their own interests based on these early play experiences. Their imagination will begin to create stories or pretend play scenarios around objects and people they see in their environment.

Encouraging children’s creative pursuits is a great way to enable them to be interested in exploring. You can employ art supplies in the home and encourage your child to use their imagination for make-believe play by creating new scenarios with toys and fantasy.

6. Cooperative Play

cooperative play

Cooperative play is the final stage of early childhood play. It typically occurs between the ages of four and six but can happen earlier or later in development. Children can work together in this stage on a common goal. They may be able to plan out what they will do together—for example, and they may decide to build a castle or go on an adventure.

Cooperative play is one of the most important skills children learn during this time period because it prepares them for later stages in life. It helps them develop social skills and learn how to take turns and share resources with others. Children also learn to cooperate with peers with different interests than their own (like art vs. sports).

The benefits of cooperative play include:

  • Increased social skills
  • The ability to share and take turns with others
  • Knowledge of how to work together toward a common goal
  • The ability to follow the rules and create structures that will help them in future life endeavors

In order to support and stimulate children’s development during this stage, it’s essential to encourage cooperative play with others. You can build a friendship with a child of the same age, or ask another family to play a board game or do arts and crafts together.


During these stages, play is a vital part of how children acquire skills and progress in their life. It prepares them for later different stages and helps them develop social, physical, and creative skills to function as adults.

It’s important to provide children with lots of opportunities for play and different types of toys that will help them develop their skills. Montessori Academy has everything you need to ensure your child’s success!

We offer various activities, including arts and crafts, music, movement and dance, science experiments, and more. Our curriculum is designed to help children develop motor skills, social skills, language development, cognitive thinking abilities, and problem-solving skills.

Our goal is to provide a safe and comfortable environment where your child can have fun while learning. You can rest assured that our staff is well-trained, caring, and knowledgeable about early childhood development. 

To learn more about our program, please call us today. We look forward to hearing from you!


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