By Ollwyn Moran, Child Development Expert

In my previous two blogs, I wrote about the importance of play and why play really matters in both structured and unstructured forms. If you haven’t had a chance to read them and have jumped right in here, do scroll back through the Clever Tots Toy Club blog posts and look them over. We all know that play is the work of children, but there is a scientific basis to this which I know you’ll find fascinating!

This post is all about the different types of play and the different stages of play. One of the questions I am asked by parents in my practice as a child developmental therapist is how to recognise that their child is ready to engage in play.

The simple answer to this is that babies can play at any age. Play is the best way to develop and promote your little one’s motor, sensory, communication and social emotional skills. In fact, play can start as soon as your little one comes home from hospital.

Unoccupied Play

The type of play that your little one will be engaging with at this early stage, from birth to around 3-months is called ‘Unoccupied Play’. This really consists of your baby making a lot of movements with their arms, legs, hands and feet. They are learning and exploring the world around them, not to mention discovering their own body and figuring out how each part moves. It is definitely unstructured and child driven play, and really what they need from you as a caregiver, is the time and encouragement to get to know themselves.

Solitary Play

During this time (0 – 2yrs) your child may also engage in ‘Solitary Play’. This is the stage of play where they are happy to play alone and are really not interested in playing with others. They may seem like they do not even notice others around them and they can become deeply engrossed in their play. This play is the hallmark of babies and toddlers however as your little one gets older it is still important for them to have some time to regularly engage in solitary play.

Spectator Play

From around 2-years onwards, your child will engage in ‘Onlooker’ or ‘Spectator Play’. They will watch others in their own play mode, where they will learn new language and new skills through observation and listening. They will learn how to relate to others, and while it may seem surprising, it is very common for your little one to make little or no effort to join in another child’s play activities.

Parallel Play

Another interesting form of play that emerges from around 2-years of age is ‘Parallel Play’. This is where a toddler will play alongside another child but will not interact or play with them. They may even mimic the other child but will not interact. This type of play allows for role play opportunities, while also fostering an understanding of ownership with “mine” becoming a very popular word in their vocabulary at this age.

Since sharing is a learned concept, the foundation for developing this practice should be introduced and encouraged through safe role play with parents or siblings in fun games.

Sharing food is often a good start with raisins or small fruits being ideal in a play picnic role play. As so much brain development and learning takes place through role play, spectator play and parallel play, it is really important to create safe opportunities for play with children of a similar age around now.

Associate Play

‘Associate Play’ is another type of play that it usually begins around age three. This is when a child becomes more interested in other children around them, and they start to interact with others during play. This stage of play is key for your child’s social development.

At the early stages of this associate play, you will see your child is more interested in the people playing than in coordinating their activities them. Even with this in mind, there is not a huge amount of interaction at this stage as they learn to socialise with others.

For example, children might all be playing on the same piece of playground equipment but all doing different things like climbing, swinging, or going down a slide. Associate play during the age range of 3-4 years is important as it further supports the art of sharing, helps to expand their language, problem solving skills and learning to co-operate and even take turns.

Cooperative Play

The last stage of play according to the renowned 1930’s researcher Mildred Parten, is ‘Cooperative Play’ which emerges around age four. This is when a child plays together with others and has interest in both the activity and other children involved in the play. Through this stage of play, children learn about ‘give and take’, cooperation and even social rules. They will share toys and ideas and even follow rules. They will even start to develop moral reasoning and basic moral values.

As an expert in child neurological development and working directly with parents and children in my practice; I believe that the more you understand the stages of play and their learning opportunities, the better you can nurture your little one’s developing brain. This together with ensuring you have the best age-appropriate and developmentally stimulating toys available to your little one, gives caregivers the best chance to create the optimum environment for children to flourish.

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