Types and Stages of Preschool Play

12 April 2017

stages of young childrens play

Play is crucial to a young child’s learning. As I’ve previously written in Child's Play Is Major Work, play is learning and learning is play for our preschoolers. But I think it’s important to know that it’s more than that. There are 2 definite kinds of play, 5 different stages of play, and different purposes that support early learning underlying that play. Having this knowledge, you can better understand, appreciate and plan for your preschooler’s current play style.

Play of young toddlers, ages 18 months to 2 years, is different from that of preschool children ages 2-1/2 to 3-½ years, which is then different from  the play of school-age children, ages 4 to 6 years. I’d like to share some basic information about these ideas so you can better understand the importance of your child’s play at each stage.  Let’s first talk about the types of play.

3 Types of Play:

1. Exploratory Play

Generally, children under the age of 3 engage in exploratory play. Their objective is to explore the world through physical actions, to experiment with their movements, and discover what they can do. They poke, dump, taste, feel, and pull whatever they encounter in order to learn about their world.  The play is not directed to any specific end. Discovery is the chief reason for this type of play.

2. Free Play and 3. Organized Play

From three three to seven years of age, however, children’s actions become more play than exploration. Their efforts to know and understand become more important than pure sensory experiences. This play can also be either free or spontaneous play or organized play.  In either type, children may work alone or in a group. Each type may involve materials and equipment, or it may not. Basically, free play, as its name suggests, is flexible. It is unplanned by adults. It is a self-selected, open exercise. Organized play is also open and flexible for preschool children.  Yet, some materials and equipment in and of themselves provide a bit of structure, such as blocks are most often used for constructing.

Many developmental theorists over the years have developed a number of theories of play. In my explanations of the stages of play, while I have indicated approximate ages for each stage, it’s important to remember that each child’s individual progression through the stages of play can vary widely. This is why there may seem to be an overlap in the age range for each stage, just as we point out in our Preschool Child Development Guide.

5 Stages of Play - Generally, preschool play is divided into the following stages:

Onlooker Play

This is the earliest play when the child plays passively by watching or conversing with other children engaged in play activities. Young children in the age range of 2 to 3 years may be in this stage, while it can take place at any age. Good toys at this stage are:

  • Blocks that snap together
  • Objects to sort by size, shape, color, smell 
  • Things to pretend with like toy phones, dolls, and doll beds, baby carriages and strollers, dress-up accessories

Solitary Play

In early toddlerhood, in the age range of 2-½ to 3-½, the child first generally plays alone. At this stage young children explore long before they use any objects in their play. They touch, smell, see, and listen. Manipulating and handling materials are important parts of toddler’s play experiences. In these early play experiences, toddlers are more involved with the manipulation of materials than they are with the uses of them.  Some good toys at this stage are:

  • Things to create with like large non-toxic, washable crayons and markers, large paintbrushes and fingerpaint, large paper for drawing and painting. Our Materials guide has a full list of suggestions.
  • Picture books with easy to see, large pictures. Our Skilly-do Book Reviews such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Tugboats are prime examples.
  • Large and small balls for kicking and throwing
  • Our Skilly-do activity, Fold-Over Painting, works very well for Solitary play.

Parallel Play

Gradually, as the toddler’s social realm expands, parallel play comes into being, in the age range of 2-½ to 3-1/2 years old. This type of play occurs when a young child plays side by side with other children with some interaction, but without direct involvement. Even though they may play together, they don’t usually share very well. It’s a good idea to have duplicate toys for toddlers in the parallel play stage. Toys for this stage include:

  • Blocks for building, transportation toys, construction sets
  • Dress-up clothes, dolls with accessories, puppets and simple puppet theaters
  • Picture books with even more words and more detailed pictures than toddler books
  • Our activity, Jet Planes, to is an easy way to explore the Parallel play stage of play

Associative Play

As the number of relationships outside the home increases, the toddler’s ability to play with other children develops further. This can occur in the age range of  3 to 4 years.  At this point the child starts to engage in associative play. This type of play may take the form of the child’s merely being present in a group. For example, a youngster who participates in finger plays during circle time or group time would be said to be engaging in associative play. You will see some common activities between children start to emerge. They may exchange toys and/or follow one another around. Although all the youngsters in the group may be doing similar activities, specific play roles are not defined, and there is no organized goal, such as building something together or pretending to have a tea party. Sharing is also starting to begin in this stage, but duplicate toys are still a good idea. These toys are good choices for this age and stage:

  • Puzzles with knobs to start with, which are easy for your preschooler’s fingers to manipulate.  As they get more adept, switch to puzzles without handles with large pieces. 
  • Collections and other smaller objects to sort by length, width, height, shape, color, smell, quantity and other features.  These objects can include plastic bottle caps, plastic bowls and lids, keys, shells, rocks ...
  • Many blocks of different sizes to build complex structures
  • Our activity, Readymade Styrofoam Sculptures is fitting and fun for children in the Associative Play stage.

Cooperative Play

As young children grow socially and become more comfortable with their social groups, they will begin to talk about, plan, and carry out play activities with other children. This is the cooperative play stage, occurring between 4 to 6 years, which is marked by mutual involvement in a play activity. Yet, as each child has a unique growth pattern, it may occur earlier with some young children. Children cooperate with others to construct something or act out coordinated roles. You can enhance this stage by having "super toys" for young children as they are in essence designed to encourage cooperative play. For example, the super toy, blocks, are great for children in this stage as with them they can plan and build together.  Here are some other suggestions:

  • Large and small muscle toys such as large and small balls for kicking, throwing and catching
  • Ride-on equipment including tricycles, tunnels, wagons and wheelbarrows
  • Plastic bats and balls, plastic bowling pins, targets and things to throw at them
  • Working together to find natural materials for our activity, Nature’s Sculptures, is great for the Cooperative stage of play.

With knowledge of the above stages, can you identify the stage your preschooler is presently in?  Are thing new things you'd like to try that fit this style of play? We're always glad to know what your think-- you can give us your feedback right here.