What Is Play?

Child Led Play, Development / Sunday, April 29th, 2018

Play. If you have been reading my blog for a while you’ll know that I cherish play in early childhood. If you are new, hi! I love to encourage play in early childhood! I think it is a great way for children to improve social skills, motor skills, and creativity. Play looks different at all ages but it is all so important! Play is defined in two different ways: Social Play and Play with Development. Each has different stages of play.

What is Play?

Social Play focuses on how the children interact with each other.

Play with Development focuses on how each child developmentally uses materials.


Stages of Social Play

Solitary Play

Just as it sounds, solitary play is play that occurs when a child is by themselves. It is most often played with ages 0-2. This is partly because young toddlers don’t have the words yet to communicate with peers to play with them.

Stages of Play | Playland Preschoolers

Onlooker Play

This stage is when children look and watch others play, but don’t engage in it. They are still playing on their own, but begin to be interested in what their peers are doing. This stage generally starts to appear between 2-3. In this picture, a lot of the other kids had started playing with the wind chime. This kiddo watched the others and after they had moved on he began to play with it.

Stages of Play | Playland Preschoolers

Parallel Play

This play is when children are playing side by side, generally with the same materials. Occasionally they will interact with who they are playing by, but it is generally an independent activity. They spend time watching and mimicking movements of others. This is when they start to see dramatic play occur. This play occurs between 2.5-3.5.

Stages of Play | Playland Preschoolers

Associative Play

The next stage is when children begin to play and communicate with each other. They are generally using the same materials and starting to maneuver a social landscape. Children begin to ask each other questions, but play at this stage isn’t organized as children still play and do what they wish. This play happens most between ages 3-4

Playland Preschoolers

Cooperative Play

This is when children have complex games, usually with roles assigned to each child. There is a common goal in mind that is only met by completing the play scenario. Socially, this play is the hardest because children have to learn how to compromise to keep the play going. This play starts to occur around ages 4-5.

Stages of Play | Playland Preschoolers


These stages of play are very fluid once they move on to the next level. A child can always go back to solitary play even though they are 5 and can play with each other. But, we shouldn’t expect a young toddler to understand cooperative play because socially and developmentally, they aren’t there. That is when a teacher helps scaffold the play until the child can do it on their own.


Stages of Play and Cognitive Development


This is based on exploring for children 2 and under. They are using their senses to explore, putting things in their mouth. They are often interested in cause and effect (ie. if a hit this drum, it makes a noise). Sand and water play is big as they are great sensory tools (keep in mind they still put things in their mouth so they are likely to ingest sand and they will be OK). They also are ready to explore with their hands.

Stages of Play | Playland Preschoolers


This is also called relational play as children 9 months-2 years play like this in relation to their environment. Toys often dictate what a child does (ie. throw or kick a ball, roll a car, stack blocks). In terms of play it is fairly basic, but it helps children build schemas in their brain in how the world works.

These steering wheels will only ever be steering wheels. The cup will be a cup. The juice will be juice. That’s how these toys are made and that is how children will view these toys.

Stages of Play | Playland Preschoolers


Constructive play can occur as early as 2 years, but starts to show a lot at 3 years. This is when children start to play with an idea in mind. They may build a house, road, or car. They may also begin drawing pictures of things like mom, dad, dog, monster. It may not look like that, but it is all part of children growing and developing. Scribbles are just as important and meaningful as a picture a 5 year old would draw.

The cardboard is a house, another child used them to make a boat. They had an idea of what they wanted to do and constructed it.

Stages of Play | Playland Preschoolers


Symbolic/representational play can show as young as 2! It is when children begin to represent things in their environment. Pretending to be something, or that a stick is something is part of symbolic play. It is also when a child steps away from functional play and begins telling the toy what to do. A stick may be a wand, or a bear may be a baby.

Stages of Play | Playland Preschoolers

PSA: This is also when children talk to each other and toys how they are talked to. Keep in mind how you interact with children and what they see because when they are engaged in symbolic play it shows. Always, always, ALWAYS treat children with respect. They may be little but they are still learning.


What do I do with this information?

I’m glad you asked! Play takes many different forms. Now that you know what play is and how children play in early childhood, you can use it to benefit their learning! The environment a child is in dictates how quickly children move to the next level (within reason…an infant won’t be playing like a 3 year old). I try to give children many different hands-on experiences to play and use their imagination with open-ended materials. Open-ended materials can help any child step into symbolic play because children will be forced to tell the material what it is instead of the other way around.


Thank you fro reading! I hope you have a better understanding about what play is and how it looks throughout early childhood! 🙂

If you enjoyed this, check out these other bloggers!

The Repurposed Nanny – She has bits of everything from DIY, Lifestyle, Kids, Recipes, and Decor.

The Playful Learner – Words cannot express how much I love Amber’s blog. She sees childhood and learning just like I do! A time to play and explore through play. I urge you to check out her blog!

Fairy Dust Teaching – A preschool teacher who teaches with a Reggio mindset. I LOVE her classroom set up that she shares.

The Kavanaugh Report – This is a Montessori blog. Nicole, the author, is a mother of young children and exposes them to practical life skills such as cutting with a knife at age 1.


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Stages of Play | Playland Preschoolers

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