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The Importance of Play: Part Four

Well, for those of you who have been with us from the beginning, we’ve covered a lot of ground in our Importance of Play articles.  Now, however, we’ve reached the end.  Not the end of play, of course, but the end of our more detached, scientific view of play.  In this final segment, we will be discussing the stages and categories of play.  While the stages of play generally apply to infants, toddlers, and children respectively, the different categories can apply to people of all ages and may provide useful insights into the type of play you prefer and even point you toward new play activities to try.

6 Stages of Play

Unoccupied Play

For anyone who has spent any time around a baby, you have probably seen this even if you didn’t realize what it was.  This is the stage of play where infants wiggle, wobble, and move for seemingly no reason other than it’s fun.  What are they doing?  Well, they’re learning about their bodies, how they move, how to move them, and how all the parts work together.

playing with blocks

Solitary Play

Your child now has command of their body’s movements, but isn’t quite interested in playing with others just yet.  This is the stage when infants and toddlers start interacting with the world around them.  Put a baby/toddler into a sandbox with other kids the same age and they will act as if the others aren’t event here and may even wander away from them.  It’s perfectly normal and healthy for your young toddler to not play with others.  Instead, they are learning to use their senses to explore their world.

Spectator Play

At this stage, your child will start to take notice of other kids’ activities and will watch them play.  Here, they are only observing but they are still learning valuable information about social interactions, so don’t push them to join in too soon.  This stage, though short, is an important one as it gives them the basic tools for the next stage.

Parallel Play

This is when your toddler starts to play alongside others, but not with others.  Now when you put them in the sandbox with other kids, they won’t walk off because they’re more interested in the grass by the swing, but will instead play in the sand on their own.

Children Sharing on Beach

Associative Play

Your toddler is getting older now and wants to join in on the fun even if they don’t quite know how to play with others just yet.  At this stage, kids will often play together with the same toys or in the same area but not necessary the same game.  A prime example is when multiple kids use the same jungle gym at the park.  They’ll laugh and giggle and interact, but won’t actually play the same game at the same time.

Cooperative Play

All of the other stages have built up to this – the final stage of play development.  Now kids come together, focused on each other and the same activity, in cooperative play.  Here you will see the beginnings of negotiation and cooperation as kids play in a group rather than as individuals.


For more information on play, you can research Mildred Parten, who developed this list of stages in her research, which is still referenced and used today.

Categories of Play

While the stages of play development specifically target young children, the various categories of play apply to people of all ages.  As you read through the list, think about the types of activities you used to do as a child.  Were you the type to draw pictures and tell stories?  Or perhaps you were the building type and focused on playing with blocks or building forts?  While many of those activities may not be as appealing as adults, it can point you toward the types of play activities you might enjoy as an adult.

Physical Play

This may seem obvious, but this type of play involves using your body rather than toys or tools.  Games like tag, hide-and-seek, or just tumbling around are all examples.  For those who were rambunctious kids always on the go, adult examples of physical play may include hiking, mountain climbing, or even participating in events like triathlons.

pieces of puzzle

Constructive Play

In this category, the focus is on the construction of something whether it be a block tower, a play-clay car, or a sandcastle.  This type of play is largely focused on things like trial-and-error, problem-solving, and exploring objects and how they work.  Constructive play as an adult may manifest itself in wood-working, rebuilding classic cars, or even gardening.

Social Play

This type of play focuses on social interactions.  It includes group activities with rules that everyone must follow and consequences for those who don’t.  Games like Simon Says, hide-and-seek, and board games.  Social play as an adult includes any activity where people get together to interact for the sole purpose of enjoyment.  Friends having a poker night, going on a group white-water rafting adventure, or joining a community sports team are all examples of social play.

people dancing

Expressive Play

An important part of everyone’s childhood, expressive play allows individuals to express their thoughts and emotions.  Unlike other types of play, which can change dramatically from childhood to adulthood, the activities in this category largely remain the same though they become more refined.  Drawing, painting, singing, dancing, playing an instrument – all are examples of expressive play.

Fantasy Play

Many children seem to live in a fantasy world.  It’s easy for them to let their imaginations take control and create a new world filled with magic and mystery.  Kids who prefer this kind of play love to pretend.  They play pirate, princess, or cowboy.  They love to do puppet shows, play with dolls, or play house.  Fantasy play for adults may include joining the community theater, playing role-playing board games, or developing (or playing) video games.

When you’re trying to think of new ways to play, think about what you used to do as a kid.  If most of your favorite activities fall under the expressive play category, you’d probably enjoy similar activities as an adult.  Or, if you’re looking to expand your interests, why not try an activity from a category you’re not too familiar with?  Sometimes it can be fun to mix things up a bit.

Understanding these categories can also help you to find new activities for your kids.  Think about what they like to do most and find new activities in the same category.  This can help when planning vacation ideas, birthday parties, or just weekend adventures and will help to ensure that your kids have fun and make memories that will last a lifetime.

Get out there and play!

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