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When it comes to how your kid plays, it turns out that it’s not all just fun and games. According to sociologist Mildred Parten Newhall, there are six distinctive stages of play from infancy until preschool—and each one offers an opportunity for your child to learn valuable lessons about herself and the world. Familiarizing yourself with the phases can help you feel at ease with your kid’s behavior (Hey, that train obsession is normal!) plus know how to better engage with him or her. 

RELATED: 8 Ways to Connect with Your Kids When You Hate to Play

Baby crawling on floor
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Unoccupied Play

Remember when your zero to two-year-old was perfectly happy sitting in a corner and playing with her feet? Although it might not seem like she’s doing much of anything, your tot is actually busy taking in the world around her (oooh, toes!) and observing. Unoccupied play is an important step that will set her up for future (and more active) playtime. So maybe save those expensive new toys for when she’s a little more interested.

Toddler looking at books
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Solitary Play

When your kid is so into playing that she doesn’t notice anyone else, you’ve entered the solitary or independent play stage, which usually shows up around years two and three. This type of play varies greatly depending on the child, but might be when your little one sits quietly with a book or plays with his favorite stuffed animal. Solitary play teaches children how to entertain themselves and be self-sufficient (plus gives you a precious moment to yourself).

Young girl resting on swing by herself
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Onlooker play

If Lucy watches other kids run up the slide 16 times but doesn’t join in the fun, don’t worry about her social skills. She’s just entered the onlooker play stage, which often occurs simultaneously to solitary play and is actually a vital first step toward group participation. (Think of it as learning the rules before jumping right in.) Onlooker play typically occurs around ages two and a half to three and a half.

Two young girls in parallel play next to each other
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Parallel play

You’ll know your child is in this phase (typically between ages two and a half and three and a half) when he and his pals play with the same toys beside each other but not with each other. This doesn’t mean they’re frenemies. In fact, they’re probably having a ball (although a “my toy!” tantrum is inevitable—sorry). Here’s what he’s learning: How to take turns, pay attention to others and mimic behavior that seems useful or fun.

Three toddlers playing together on the floor
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Associative Play

This stage looks similar to parallel play but is characterized by your child’s interaction with others without coordination (and typically occurs between ages three and four). Think: two kids sitting side by side building a Lego city…but working on their own individual buildings. This is a great opportunity to introduce valuable skills like teamwork and communication. (“See how your tower fits so nicely on top of Tyler’s tower?”)

Group of preschoolers playing cooperatively with blocks
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Cooperative play

When kids are finally ready to play together (typically around the time they start school at age four or five), they've reached the final stage of Parten’s theory. This is when team sports or group performances become a lot more fun (for kids playing and for parents watching). Now they’re ready to apply the skills they’ve learned (like socializing, communicating, problem solving and interacting) to other parts of their life and become fully functioning mini adults (well, almost).

RELATED: Montessori, Waldorf or Reggio Emilia: What’s the Actual Difference Between Preschools?

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