Blog: Nurturing Children Together

The Pace of Play Development

On a recent morning in our outdoor classroom, I found myself balancing the act of being meaningfully engaged with a few of the preschoolers in my care, and periodically glancing around the yard, taking in a little field data on what all the other children were busy doing. This is a familiar state for all preschool teachers. The children with whom I was directly involved were busy experimenting with water. On a large water bin they had placed ramps of various lengths and widths, and they were pouring water down the ramps to the grass, experimenting with design and physics. In this seemingly simple act, by many of the children here, their brains were highly active.


Our current national academic environment is very performance-based, and that can overwhelm kids, teachers, and parents. We read and talk a lot about the push for academic performance at progressively younger ages . For many, pushing too hard academically doesn’t feel healthy. As a result, there seems to be a trend towards more acceptance of play-based learning.

I support the focus on play-based learning, and I’d also like to offer a word of caution about how play can become a performance that may get pushed too hard. Psychologists and educators have outlined six stages of play, including: Unoccupied - Random movement without intention, which is the play of an infant; Solitary - Playing alone independently; Onlooker - Watching other children without participating; Parallel - Playing side-by-side without interacting; Associative - Playing with other children, but the play is not coordinated; Cooperative - Interactive play that is highly coordinated.

Typically what we see in the preschool years is a range from Solitary to Cooperative play. It is often a goal to see a child move through all these stages, and ultimately be comfortable with Cooperative play by the end of their preschool experience. My caution is that moving through the stages of play can be rushed, resulting in the child being pushed to perform at a more advanced level before the child is ready. I’d like to explain the benefits of letting a child be in their current stage of play as needed, without pushing them to move forward before they are ready.

Solitary Play: Children need to experience solitary play, as it gives them the freedom to think, to explore, and to create, without expectations placed upon them. In solitary play, they are free to use their imaginations, they can develop physical and mental skills, and they can be fully engaged in their exploration. Many of the skills developed in this stage contribute to later learning, such as language, spatial reasoning, creativity, and abstract thinking. Children also acquire self-knowledge during this stage, a very useful life skill.

Onlooker Play: In this stage of play, children watch and are mentally engaged, even though they are not physically engaged in play with others. During this stage, important social learning takes place. Children in this stage of play are mentally practicing what it would be like to interact, priming themselves for the next stage of play.  They are taking note of the physical, social, verbal, and behavioral interactions that they witness. When children are given time to experience this stage of play at their own pace, they will proceed with more confidence and self-assurance.

Parallel Play: During parallel play children operate in their own private worlds, but in the larger context of other people and ideas. They are simultaneously observing their peers and exploring on their own. During this stage of play, they often develop new understandings about language and expression, and about social and emotional boundaries. These are vital lessons for future social and emotional learning.

Associative Play: In associative play, children play together, but not in an organized group with rules or goals in mind. Important skills learned during associative play include sharing, cooperation, and problem-solving skills. Associative play allows children to try out developing beliefs about the world. This stage is important because it marks the child’s interest in peers, rather than simply the play itself. This interest is critical in leading to the development of friendship.

Cooperative Play: During this stage of play, children are motivated to play together in groups, with norms and goals in mind. They develop problem-solving skills as a group and create community. This stage of play allows children to develop a sense of purpose and leads to development of peer leadership and collaboration.

Rather than focusing on the end goal of cooperative play, it is beneficial to understand and truly value each stage of play development and to let children move through the stages at their own pace. There is no need to push a child into a more developed stage of play. A child who is still most comfortable playing alongside peers, but not yet interacting with peers, needs time and space to develop the skills of parallel play. It is important to keep in mind there may be times when children need to participate in more solitary play, even if they have reached a more advanced stage of play development. As a teacher, part of my job is to track what stage of play children are operating in and to keep the play opportunities open enough so when they are ready, they will naturally begin to move into another stage. In most cases, there is no need to push a child into social interactions that may be stressful. On occasion, a child may need encouragement to take the next step, but most of the time, it comes naturally. One of the great benefits of preschool experience is that children have ample opportunities to navigate social situations that foster all the play stages.


The children working at the water bin that day were deciphering how the speed of the water and the distance it traveled changed according to the length of the ramp, a lesson in engineering. They were using their fine and gross motor skills to lift, carry, and place the ramps delicately on the bin. They were using spatial reasoning to determine the most effective placement of the ramps. They were navigating the complex world of sharing space with others, which involves awareness of where their body ends in space (a skill of proprioception that develops for quite a while beyond preschool), reading their peers’ facial expressions to determine their emotional state, developing flexibility by waiting for a turn, fine-tuning verbal skills when asking for a turn, and using executive functioning to create win-win situations.

As a preschool teacher who encourages learning through play, I am accustomed to seeing through this lens. We offer these opportunities, and when we do, children find and develop their own skills. What I want readers to know is that these skills are noticed and valued, and that the beauty of it all is that the child knows how to learn these things when given the opportunity to explore. When they do, we will see and point out, which will help to make connections between experience and learning. This is a cornerstone of becoming life-long learners.

YouTube: Stuart Brown: Play is More Than Fun

The Power of Play: how spontaneous, imaginative activities lead to happier, healthier children. David Elkind, PhD.