The 6 Different Stages Of Play In Early Childhood According To Mildred Parten

As we all know, play is an integral aspect of life during early childhood. That’s why it becomes is important to learn about how the 6 different stages of play, since it is a progressive process which helps children imbibe important skills, and prepare them to face the competitive world.

While play is often seen as something frivolous that children do to pass their time, it is a very important part of child’s healthy development. Play, actually, is child’s work.

Through play, children learn academic skills like effective communication, conflict resolution, problem-solving and cooperation. Most importantly, through play, they learn about themselves. They get to know their personalities, including their likes and dislikes, strengths and interests.

Through play, children learn where they fit in the world. Realising the importance of play, it becomes essential to know the various types of play, its characteristics and importance. Hence, this module on types of play and its value, would attempt to elaborate Parten’s Theory of Play.

In this article:

  1. Unoccupied play
  2. Solitary play
  3. Onlooker play
  4. Parallel play
  5. Associative play
  6. Cooperative play

Mildred Parten’s Theory of Play

Play is of different forms, especially in the case of younger children. No child is seen sitting still. They can always be seen engaged in some sort of play or the other.

In 1932, an American Socioloist Mildred Bernice Parten Newhall was one among the early researchers who studied children at play.

Mildred Parten described play as something that is not hierarchical, but depends on the situation or circumstances a child may engage in any kind of play. She identified six stages of play that children progress through.

It is important to note that each child develops at his or her own pace. So children of the same age may not show exactly the same types of play.

Parten has classified the participation of children during free play, by observing children of age 2 to 5. There are six stages in patterns theory:

The 6 Stages of Play According to Mildred Parten

1. Unoccupied Play

The child is busy engaged in unoccupied play from birth to three years of age. It’s also called as ‘Free Spontaneous Play’. According to Parten, play is an act that keeps the child engaged during infancy.

It’s an unorganised sort of play which helps the child to explore the surroundings. In this type of play, children are relatively still, and their play appears scattered. Unoccupied play helps the child to manipulate materials, master self-control, and learn about the things around him or her.

There are no rules and regulations. Unoccupied play looks like babies or young children exploring materials around them, without any sort of organisation. It is mostly demonstrated by infants who try to explore themselves around their new surroundings.

The child explores the world through complete free thinking, movements, and imagination. The baby plays alone, and as long as he wants. He gets enjoyment by exercising his sense organs, and this play is exploratory in nature.

For example, if an object which is colorful and smooth is kept near the child, he or she grabs, kicks and crawls around with it, until an adult distracts the child through a surprising sound or physical contact. Idle observations, and aimless movement of the body, are examples of unoccupied behavior.

Activities for Unoccupied Play

Here there is no need of any special equipment or play material. What matters is the environment of the child. Child just uses the sense organs to play. Other than the sense organs the child only needs the presence of their adult as a supporting agent for the play.

2. Solitary Play

Solitary play is one of the first type of play seen in younger children who are around two to three years. In this, children are unaware of what others are doing and they are not interested in other’s tasks. It is an independent play by the child himself.

They play alone and continuously, focusing only on their activity, thereby entertaining themselves without any social involvement. They may not notice or acknowledge other children. This is the time period when the child explodes the world around them and discovers new situations they are introduced to.

Adults sometimes might worry about children playing alone, but actually this kind of play is very normal. Solitary play helps the child to use their imagination and develop physical and mental skills, thereby mastering new personal skills.

During this stage, a child will be able to explore, create, and learn as to how things are working. They start using their imagination and apply rules while playing. It is said to be the proprietary period for children, before playing with others. Children in this play are not expected to achieve any goal. They often talk to themselves at the time of solitary play.

There are two types of Solitary Play:

  1. Solitary active play
  2. Solitary imaginative play

Solitary active play includes make-believe play. It is considered to be the bridge between solitary play and social play, and includes repeated simple moments with or without a toy.

For example, a child playing on a beach filling sand into the bucket and undoing it repeatedly for a long period of time.

Activities of Solitary Active Play

Certain toys that can keep the child engaged, such as blocks, electronic cars, bouncing balls, manual toy cars or bicycles etc., which allows the child to release their energy and keep them busy for certain time.

 Solitary imaginative play is playing using a little bit of imagination, which strengthens the child’s mental ability. It even helps develop their abstract thinking, language and creativity. Children imagine situations and make up stories with their thoughts.

For example, Ritu has a blanket and molded toys to play. Using her imagination, she assumes the blanket to be her mansion, and the toys to be her friends and serpents in which Ritu takes the lead role of a princess. She goes around giving commands or orders regarding the tasks which she imagines to be done by one of the dolls.

Activities for Solitary Imaginative Play

For this, an adult need not provide any toys or items. The child will usually make use of other materials that are usually available at home, or in the environment; and use them as their toys based on their imagination.

The child, in addition, also uses all the toys which she or he has already been using, and creates another new world of their own.

3. Onlooker Play

This kind of play is also known as spectator play. The child just observes what and how others are playing, without disturbing them or joining with them. A child learns a lot by watching other children play, and that forms the active part of this kind of play.

Onlookers are mostly children between two and two-and-a-half years. Children involved in such kind of play are found observing another child or group of children in a play activity. Though no direct involvement in play is initiated by an onlooker, the child is found somewhere very near to the play activity of others.

Sometimes, it is easy to think that children engaged in onlooker play might be lonely or scared to engage with other children. But it is actually a very normal part of play development. Just as adults watch others, children to learn a lot by watching others.

The onlookers observe, try to communicate, give suggestions, clarify their doubts, and even show certain other forms of social interaction. Through onlooker play, a child acquires self-knowledge, practices interaction, and learns how to play with others, and also grasp the social rules of play, and how to form relationships.

This play helps them to understand as to how to engage with others physically, mentally, emotionally and socially during play. They also learn how to use materials for play and understand about the world in general.

Onlooker play can be encouraged by showing children daily activities or by allowing them to observe children elder to them playing.

For example, Tim, a two-and-a-half years old child who is just admitted in a play school, sits with Ron, a four years old, who is playing with blocks.

Here Tim does not play along with Ron. The child just observes what Ron was doing with the blocks its shapes texture and forms. After a few minutes, Tim suggests a block appropriate to his imagination to run water fit into his building blocks.

Ron being the eldest approach the suggestion and keeps the block, which satisfies Tim. Here Tim is developing socialisation.

Activities for Onlooker Play

The most positive way of encouraging children to play, is by letting them see other children playing and enjoying a game. As for a toddler, it’s best to see their elder siblings play, or children in the neighborhood gather and play.

When it comes to childhood, children can be sent to a nursery or kindergarten, where they get to see more children, and generate an interest in playing more games. A preschool child enjoys games by watching their role models playing. It can be the father, elder sibling, or other children too.

4. Parallel Play

Parallel play is the first step towards social interactive play. This kind of play occurs when children play next to each other, but are not really interacting together.

Though children seem to be in a group, they play on their own. They are still egocentric in nature. In other words, even while seated next to each other, they do not interact among themselves.

Parallel play is seen in children between the age group of two and three. In this play even if the child plays the same or a different game, they like to be seated along with children of the same age group. They seem to possess a ‘don’t care’ attitude of what others play, but they do react when removed from the group.

They are not really engaged in social exchange. Children start separating toys as ‘my toys’ and ‘their toys’. They watch and listen to each other, which is the initial stage of socialisation.

Parallel play is a bridge to more cooperative play. It’s like a warm-up exercise, wherein the children work side-by-side on the same activity, practicing skills, and learning new methods to engage together. It develops a child’s reasoning skills and leads to symbolic play.

For example, two children, Meena and Rehmath seated face-to-face with same toys and sticks. They both play with the same toys by their imagination.

Meena uses the stick as a swirl in her imagination, whereas Rehmath uses the stick as a ladder to stir soup. They both will be seated together, but will be playing different games.

Activities for Parallel Play

The equipment or toys used here will be common or can be of any type. Only thing is that the parent can bring a change in the environment, or improvise the seating arrangement of the child by making them sit with a child of the same age.

Even though the children do not interact with each other, they might feel comfortable to have the other’s company. Also, they get a chance to observe each other, and the next day they might exchange their ideas of play.

5. Associative Play

Associative play type of play signifies a shift in the child. Even though children play individually, they sit in a group and take turns with their toys, which means children play same activities at the same time, but it is not necessary to get along with each other.

Instead of being more focused on the activity or object involved in play, children begin to be more interested in the other players.

Associative of play is seen in children above the age of three. Children interact with each other by asking, borrowing and sharing toys, but not playing with each other.

As far as children are concerned communication is only necessary for giving and taking their toys. But children develop a friendship with other children and take preferences to play with.

Associative play helps in developing cooperation, reasoning skills and problem-solving abilities. It makes children to become more social and interactive. They start clarifying their doubts by asking how, why, and what the task is for.

They also practice what they have observed through onlooker play and parallel play. They also start using their newfound skills to engage with other children or adults during an activity or exploration. During this stage, the more mature child is selected as the leader of the group.

For example, two to five children in a sandpit play together with their boundaries, each one having their own tools to play. When they need something extra, they ask for it, and also share the tools without more communication or thanking each other.

Activities for Associative Play

Associative play is quite similar to parallel play, but others should not provide the same toys for children. They must have different toys so that they can exchange or share the toys they are using. This gives them an opportunity to interact with each other and develop social skills.

6. Cooperative Play

It is an organised kind of play with a particular goal to be achieved. This type of play is mostly seen in children around five years. It is categorised by cooperative efforts between players. Children play in a large group with principles and rules.

In this kind of play the leader plays a lead or active role. Cooperative play is seen in preschool activities in the form of dramatised play, group formal games, etc. In this kind of play each child is assigned with particular tasks which has to be completed by adhering certain rules, which will help the group to reach a collective goal.

Cooperative play develops social skills in children as they interact with each other. It also involves a lot of conflict, but it’s quite normal. Conflicts usually arise, because it is sometimes difficult for young children to share, take turns, and negotiate control in these types of scenarios.

This can be overcome if parents or elders can stay close by when they play, helping them learn healthy ways of expressing their emotions, and by teaching them problem-solving skills and strategies.

Language develops rapidly in the children, as they start speaking and listening to each other during play. It is important to remember that cooperation is an advanced skill and can be very difficult for young children. There are different types of cooperative play, like sharing, taking turns, obeying rules, and negotiating.

Sharing does not literally have the exact meaning, as children do not take initiative to share their things with other children in most of the situations. When an adult asks a child to share a toy with another child, he or she finds it unbearable to give up the things to someone.

The easiest way to convince the child to share is to negotiate with the child or distract him with something else which is more interesting and make the child give up on his toy by himself.

For example, two children Sheldon and Jennifer are coloring two different pictures using the same box of crayons.

Sheldon needed blue color to paint the sky in his picture, but the same color was being used by Jennifer to color a dress. In the situation, an adult can ask sunny to color top half of the dress with blue and the remaining half with another color, citing the reason that the picture would be more beautiful.

By convincing Sheldon to use another color, the situation results in Sheldon voluntarily sharing the blue color crayon to Jennifer.

Taking turns

By playing in a group, children have to wait to get their turn. Children mostly tend to get an immediate response when they want something, but it’s not possible in cooperative play. A child has to patiently wait to satisfy his pleasure to play till his time comes, even if the child had to wait without completing the task.

They should be taught that they should never give up but wait patiently until their turn comes. In case they have to give up, it is better to teach them in a manner that is fun. Maybe a game can be introduced in such a manner, that the person who gives up will be the winner.

It is also sometimes better to create a winning situation for both the parties. For example, while playing with a ball, if both children refuse to share it, then we can make them play games such as throw the ball or passing the ball, so that both the children get their turn.

Obeying rules

Children are very possessive and competitive by nature. While playing, everyone wants to win in the game they play. So children tend to cheat a little bit in order to achieve their goal. Since the peers never accept such discrepancies, adults should create a set of rules which have to be adhered to by the children to win the game.

To avoid issues in cooperative games, it is better to teach children about the rules and regulations of the game. This in turn also develops a good sportsmanship in the children, and also teaches them the tactics to end a game peacefully. Let the children learn that not all games are meant to be won, and it is fine to do in some games.


It is difficult for a child to accept or compromise to their desire on what they want, since children are the boss of their own life. By learning to negotiate, children learn to deal with their emotions and develop empathy towards others.

It is better to teach children to negotiate with little things at home between siblings or parents, before forcing them to take initiative to negotiate with friends.

Once a child learns to share, wait for turns, negotiate and follow rules, they will be ready for the future things of their life. It is at this stage that they learn to master important new social skills such as sharing, taking turns, obeying rules and negotiating. These are all very difficult for a young child to learn.

Activities for Cooperative Play

As the children have grown up now, they can interact and follow the instructions. So games such as word puzzle, running race, snake and ladder and lotto, among others, can be given to children, where the child is taught to wait for chances and play according to the rules.


Mildred Parten’s categories represent one way of thinking about the types of play. Parten’s categories emphasise the role of play in the child’s social world. Play is thus an exciting and pleasurable activity, because it satisfies the exploratory drive.

During play children practice their competencies and skills in a relaxed and pleasurable way. Play not only reflects a child’s cognitive development, but also advances that development.