Friday, February 7, 2014

Teaching Kids to Play: Stages of Play Overview

One of the first things I noticed when my boys first came to me was the lack of ability to "play".  They didn't know what to do with toys other than crash them into each other or bang and throw them. They obsessed with bad guys and beating bad guys, but not in an imaginative cops and robbers way, just a focus on hitting toys against each other. They were not able to follow rules, share or wait their turn.   There was no imagination, making up scenarios and stories and cooperatively playing with other peers did not come naturally.  If I had a chance to do that first year over again I would have focused on direct instruction of play.   They didn't pick up on these play skills naturally and never caught up, as I thought they would, by watching and imitating peers play.  We had bigger fish to fry at the time, or so I thought, and it wasn't something I thought I could really deal with then on top of everything else, nor did I realize the importance of play skills in other development areas.  The thing is,  now that I've spent a lot of time looking into teaching kids to play, it is not something that would be difficult to incorporate into your daily routine!  Hopefully this series will help you identify the play skills your child may have missed or be having difficulty with and give you some great ideas to help them succeed in play!


In 1932, Mildred Parten categorized the stages of play for children that we still use today. Those stages are Onlooker, Solitary, Parallel, Associative, and Cooperative Play. We will be looking at each of these stages over the next few weeks in more detail, but read through the brief descriptions and began looking for where your child might fit in, what stage are they at?  You may find that your child completely skipped one of the stages in their development or never mastered a particular skill within an area of play.
Unoccupied: In this stage a child may observe others playing, but not join in. They may make seemingly random movements or gestures.  For example, an infant may look around a room and reach out their hand, but not engage in play.
Solitary:  Solitary play is when a child is engaged in an independent activity, showing no interest in joining or interacting with other children. For example, a child is in a room of children, sitting alone and stacking blocks.
Onlooker: During onlooker behavior a child may watch others play but not join in, differing from unoccupied play in that the children may engage in forms of social interaction like having a conversation with the children playing.  For example, a child walks up to a group playing with legos and talks with them about what they are building but does not join in and play with the legos.
Parallel: In parallel play, children may play next to each other, possibly even with similar toys.  They may interact but the focus is on their own individual play.  For example, two children may be sitting next to each other driving trucks.  They may even comment to the other child what they are doing, "My truck is digging a hole."
Associative: This stage involves children sharing and interacting with each other, but they utilize separate storylines and themes.  For example, children may be coloring next to each other and sharing crayons, but create individual artwork and tell different stories about their picture. The interactions are more reciprocal than in parallel play, with the conversation going back and forth and the child asking questions or commenting on the other child's play.
Cooperative:  This stage of play is highly complex, as it combines skills learned from previous stages in order for children to participate in organized, goal oriented play.  This stage involves children sharing materials, working together to develop and assign roles and storylines to coordinate and play together.  For example, children may gather together pretend food and carts, set up a grocery store and check out area, assign roles of shopper and cashier and carry out a storyline of purchasing food and checking out.
List of Topics in "Teach Kids to Play" Series:
(As each topic is covered I will link up to it here)
Onlooker Play
Parallel Play
Associative Play
Cooperative Play
How to set up a Direct Instruction Play Session
Joint Attention
What is "Play Therapy" and how is this different?

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