6 stages of play

Overview: Social interaction is super important to children who are homeschooled, especially at a young age. Children learn the important social skills through playing. They need time to achieve all 6 stages of play to achieve social maturity.

Welcome to the Learning Through Play Series where we are exploring everything you need to know about play. Be sure to check out the other posts in this series.

  1. The Importance of Play in Early Childhood: Why You Should Just Let Them Play
  2. The Importance of Sensory Play
  3. Play & Learn: Can You Really Do Them at the Same Time?
  4. 6 Stages of Play
  5. 7 Types of Play
  6. Imaginative Play: What You Need to Know

Having worked with young children of all ages, I have seen many different ways to play. One group of kids I had, I followed from the 2 year old class to the 3 year old class (and eventually I had some of them in 4th grade).

I was lucky to follow this group because I got to take a really close look at the development of a child. I witnessed the play of these children evolve and become more complex just like other skills I was trying to teach them.

The Importance of Social Play

If you’ve been around here for a while, you know that play, specifically child led play, is one of my top priorities in our homeschool. The best way to help our children grow and keep a child-led approach to learning is through play. It gives children a magnitude of skills to practice and perfect, which you can read about in my post, Importance of Play in Early Childhood: Why You Should Just Let Them Play.

Play is a wonderful way to develop and hone those social skills. This can be hard when homeschooling, especially if your child is the only one. But just because our kids don’t have a natural environment to practice social skills in like preschool centers do, doesn’t mean we can’t expose them to social play.

Social playing builds the foundation of the all important social skills such as problem solving, advocating for themselves, decision making, working in groups, and solving conflicts.

There are many option for exposing your child to social play such as a story time, a library play area, play groups, and simply going to the park.

The Stages of Play

Children learn best through play and hands on experiences. We all know that. But play itself is a skill with a natural progression of stages that build on top of each other. A child needs time in each of the stages of play before moving on to the next. Just like any other skill, social play is developed through practice and building a foundation in each stage of play.

Children with older siblings or playmates will typically go through these stages faster because they have role models for play. Children who don’t get to play with others often may take longer to get through these stages and may struggle with cooperative play even at a later age.

Unoccupied Play

This stage begins at birth. Those random movements and jerks are considered play for infants ages 0 through 3 months. The random movements make them aware of their body and helps them begin to understand how to use these parts to do the things they want. This stage of play involves no toys and the child remains stationary.

stages of play

Solitary Play

Once the child is able to start holding objects, unoccupied play switches to solitary play. Children in this stage are typically 3 months to 3 years old. They play alone and are uninterested in others. These children are able to play with toys and objects now.

Solitary play is important at all ages. Even though they will progress through this stage of play, they will always come back to it, even at 16. Being able to play independently is a super important skill. Typically this is the longest stage of play.

Onlooker Play

Once a child starts to progress into onlooker play, they begin to notice others playing. This is typically around 2.5 to 3.5 years old. In this stage, children watch how others play, but don’t join in. It’s all about observing.


Parallel Play

Once the child is comfortable, they will move into parallel play where they still play by themselves. This stage mimics onlooker play, but the difference is that children begin to ask questions about the other child’s play. They may ask the child next to them, “what are you doing?” to learn new ways of playing.

This teaches them the beginnings of communicating with other children. They also begin to learn new skills from observing and talking with others. You may notice them playing with similar toys.

Associative Play

Now children begin to play with each other, but they do not work towards a common goal. The children are more interested in each other than the actual activity or toy. There are no rules or player roles set. This stage is typical of 3-4 year olds.

This stage sets the foundation for learning cooperation, problem solving, and the language needed for the last stage of play.

stages of play

Cooperative Play

This is the stage we all are waiting for. The day our children play with one another in a cooperative way. Unfortunately, this typically doesn’t happen until around 4-6 years old.

During this stage, children are working together towards a common goal. You can usually find a leader who assigns roles to other children. The children are all working towards a common goal, such as being parents in house play. This stage requires high social maturity and is only reached when the child has had time to explore each stage of play at their own pace.

I encourage you to take some time to find ways your child can have some social play with others. Working in a group is a needed skill in the 21st century and it all starts with moving through the stages of play.