Stages of Play: Understanding the Importance of Associative Play for Child Development

associative play

As children grow and develop, it is crucial to provide them with a variety of experiences that promote their cognitive, social, and emotional growth. One such experience is associative play, characterized by children playing alongside each other, sharing materials, and engaging in similar or complementary activities. Associative play is an integral part of child development, as it offers numerous benefits to children in the short and long term.

This blog post will delve into associative play and explore why it is essential for a child’s growth and development. We will also provide practical tips for parents and caregivers on encouraging and facilitating associative play in young children.

Defining Associative Play

Associative play is a type of play in which children engage in activities together but without any structured or organized rules. During associative play, children may play with the same toys or materials but are not necessarily focused on a shared goal or activity. Instead, they may be engaged in parallel play, where they play alongside each other, or engage in simple interactions, like sharing materials or commenting on each other’s play.

Associative play usually begins around the age of 3, although some children may begin engaging in associative play earlier or later than that. This is typically when children start to show an interest in playing with other children and develop the social skills needed to engage in this type of play.

Associative play is one of the six Stages of Play developed by Dr Mildred Parten Newhall. The other five stages of play are. Unoccupied playIndependent playOnlooker PlayParallel play, and Cooperative play.

Examples of Associative Play

examples of associative play

Here are some examples of situations in which children engage in associative play:

1. Two children are playing with building blocks. They share the materials and talk to one another, but they are not building specifically for one another. Each child has their own set of blocks, and they both build independently of each other.

2. A group of toddlers is sitting in a sandbox, playing with shovels and buckets. Each child is digging and filling their bucket, but they sit close together and occasionally watch what the others are doing. They may also take turns sharing toys or playing together briefly.

Key Benefits of Associative Play

Observing children engage in associative play is a thrilling and fulfilling experience as a parent or caregiver. Witnessing your child step outside their personal world and interact with others as they learn valuable skills is truly remarkable. Associative play provides numerous benefits that contribute to a child’s holistic development. Here are some of the key advantages of this type of play:

benefits of associative play
  • Social Development: Associative play provides children with opportunities to interact with others and practice important social skills. They learn to communicate their thoughts and ideas, share materials and toys, and negotiate with others. This helps them develop strong social connections and build positive relationships with their peers.
  • Emotional Development: Through associative play, children learn to understand and respond to the emotions of others, helping them develop important emotional skills such as empathy and self-regulation. Positive experiences in associative play can help build self-esteem and foster a sense of belonging in children.
  • Language Development: During associative play, children have the opportunity to practice their language skills by talking and interacting with others. They learn new words and phrases, develop their vocabulary, and improve their ability to communicate effectively with others.
  • Increased Creativity: During associative play, children can explore and create their own scenarios without any structured or organized rules. This freedom allows children to use their imaginations and be creative in their play. For example, when playing with blocks, children may build different structures or use the blocks to create their imaginative worlds. Through these play experiences, children learn to think outside the box and come up with new ideas and solutions.

How to Encourage Associative Play

If you’re a parent, caregiver, or educator looking to encourage associative play in children, there are many activities and toys that can help support this stage of play. Here are some ideas:

Fun Activities to Support Associative Play

activities to support associative play

These are some of the fun activities we have compiled for you to use during associative play:

1. Sensory Play

Sensory play activities, such as playing with playdough, sand, or water, are ideal for encouraging associative play. Children can play alongside each other, exploring the materials and creating their own play scenarios.

2. Art Activities

Painting and drawing are all examples of Art activities for kids. These are great for encouraging associative play. Children can work on their own art projects alongside each other or collaborate on a larger piece of art.

3. Pretend Play

Encouraging imaginative play in children is crucial for their development, and pretend play for kids is an excellent way to achieve that. Activities such as playing with dolls or dress-up are perfect for children to engage in imaginative and associative play. They can take on various roles and characters and interact with each other in a playful and creative way, which helps in shaping their personalities and social skills.

4. Playgroups

Joining a playgroup can be a great way for children to engage in associative play with their peers. Playgroups offer children the opportunity to interact with others in a safe and nurturing environment and can provide a range of play activities for children to explore and enjoy.

5. Outdoor Activities

Engaging in outdoor activities, like playing at the park or going on nature walks, can have a positive impact on children’s social and creative development. Associative play can be fostered in these settings as children get to explore the natural world, play games, and participate in imaginative play, all while being in a refreshing environment that stimulates their senses.

Engaging Toys to Support Associative Play

animal figures

Make sure to look for toys that promote open-ended play and encourage your child to be creative and imaginative. These toys can support children in playing alongside each other as they interact and communicate. Here are some of our favorite toys for associative play:

1. Play-doh or clay

Provide a variety of tools and molding materials for children to create their own sculptures and designs. They can share tools and materials and talk about what they are creating.

2. Imaginative Play Sets

Provide open-ended play sets that encourage imaginative play, such as a dollhouse, train set, or animal habitat. Children can use these sets to create their own stories and scenarios with their peers.

3. Art Supplies

Provide a variety of art supplies, such as paints, markers, and paper. Children can use these supplies to create their own art projects, collaborate on a group project, or work on individual pieces side by side.

4. Animal Figures

Provide a variety of animal figures, such as farm animals, jungle animals, or sea creatures. Children can use these figures to create their own stories. 

5. Baby Dolls

baby dolls

Provide a variety of baby dolls with different features and accessories. Children can use these dolls to engage in pretend play, practice nurturing skills, and work together to care for their “babies.”

The Takeaway

Associative play is an essential stage of play that helps children develop their social and emotional skills. It allows them to interact with peers, share ideas, and learn from each other. As parents and caregivers, we can encourage and facilitate associative play by providing opportunities for children to engage in group activities and playdates. We can also provide theme toys and a safe and stimulating environment that encourages exploration, creativity, and imagination. By supporting children’s associative play, we can help them develop the skills they need to thrive socially and emotionally in school and beyond.

We at Montessori Academy believe in the importance of associative play in child development, and we hope we give you valuable insights into the benefits of this stage of play. If you have any questions or would like to learn more about our approach to education, we encourage you to reach out to us at (310) 215-3388 for our Culver City location or (323) 795-0200 for our West Adams location.


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