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The Social Stages of Play: A Guide to Understanding How Your Infant or Toddler will Develop Social P

Have you ever wondered what social play skills develop when? My son is playing with toys on his own, should I be encouraging him to play with others? Every time my child tries to play trains with her friends, she ends up in tears. Keep reading to learn more about how play skills develop in the social world and what you should expect from your infant or toddler.

There are 6 (relatively) predictable stages of social play, starting with unoccupied play at birth and ending with cooperative play with friends.

  1. Unoccupied Play (from birth to around 1-2 years of age) – The first type of play your child will engage in is unoccupied play. This play takes place when your child is not yet moving around independently. He will play with objects within reach through shaking, mouthing, throwing, grasping and more. At this age, he may not engage in social play (sharing, showing you toys, playing games together). That is OK; your child is just starting to explore this new world around him. He is preparing for more advance play by learning how to interact with objects and move his body. Provide him with activities that activate multiple senses, such as rattles that he can shake to practice movement, hear music and feel different textures. You do not have to buy all the special toys at this age – pour some water into the pots & pans you already have at home and give your child an assortment of spoons to explore their sense of touch, hearing and motor skills.

  1. Solitary Play (begins around 18 months-3 years of age) – Now that your child has started to navigate the world independently, she is starting to engage in solitary or independent play. Your child still may not be playing socially with you or other children, but is interacting with toys in a more purposeful way. She may be learning cause & effect (i.e. If I push this button, my toy will make a “MOO” sound). She can play with toys and entertain herself for longer periods of time. How to help your child develop skills at this stage: Provide your child with all the supplies she needs to make an art project. You can put out finger paints, sponges, stamps, stickers, tissue paper, shaving cream and more onto a large piece of butcher paper taped to the floor. Let her get messy, create her own masterpiece and help as needed.

  1. Onlooker Play (begins around 2-3 years of age) – This is where the social play begins. Your child may be tired of playing alone and is interested in what others around him are doing. When he starts to develop language, he will use it to ask questions about the toys and activities others are playing. Your child is now a social being who understands that he can learn from others around him. When your child is watching others play, encourage him to ask questions and share observations about what he is seeing. Do not push him to join the play, he is developing important skills through watching and will join in when he is ready.

  1. Parallel Play (begins around 2.5-3.5 years of age) – This is the type of play you see when your child is at daycare or preschool. Her teacher puts out a few puzzles on a table and each child choses and plays with one. She does not yet have the skill set to appropriately share and take turns with toys, so she will need lots of adult help to communicate when she is ready to start a new puzzle. At this stage, she is gaining important skills such as waiting, tolerating being around peers and managing conflict (with a lot of help from others). Give your child and some friends (or siblings) a bin of blocks, Megablocks, Magnatiles, etc. and cars, dolls or animal figures and let them use their imagination to build, create and destroy structures. Stay close by to help manage any conflicts that may arise and model appropriate behavior.

  1. Associative Play (begins around 3 or 4 years of age) – At this stage, your child is beginning to engage in play with others around him. He may share pieces of a toy with his friends and start to talk to others about the things he is doing. His play with others may be disorganized and lack purpose (i.e. He will not be playing a board game with the purpose of winning the game), but he is starting to bring others into his play. Play dress up with your child and his friends. Put out different costume items and let them explore and try them on. This will encourage interaction and problem solving; when they both want the same pirate hat, you can help them take turns.

  1. Cooperative Play (begins around 4-6 years of age) – Your child is playing with others in games that have rules and require using all of those skills she has been building over the past few years. She might not be perfect, at first, but she is using all of her problem solving, cooperation and motor skills to play with others. She may start developing friendships and begin to feel a group identity. Set up a scavenger hunt at home. Your child will have to consult her friends to navigate through the stages. Working on a team to reach a group goal will help her build confidence in her cooperative play skills.

Your child may not follow these stages exactly; many have overlapping ages and ranges for when your child enters a new stage. However, cooperative play requires that your child build important skills before they can successfully develop meaningful relationships with others. Be patient with your child and support them as they progress into social beings.

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