How Children Learn to Play

All children play, and toys are every child’s most prized possessions. While fun is its main focus, play is actually serious business. It helps children develop cognitively, emotionally, socially, and physically.


While playing, children acquire essential skills, like problem-solving, negotiation, and critical thinking. They learn how to regulate their emotions, empathize with others, and use their imaginations.

The type of play a child engages in is also a sign of how well they’re developing. Play goes through several developmental stages as a child grows.

It involves experimenting, being imaginative, and having fun in all phases. Knowing what to expect at every stage can help you have more fun with your child and teach them life skills more effectively.

Stage 1: Unoccupied play

Newborns up to three months of age don’t actively play, but they do begin to absorb the world around them by moving. Their movements are uncoordinated and involuntary, so it may not seem like they’re doing much, but they’re actually soaking up all the stimuli.

Babies move their arms and legs around to get a sense of how their body moves, observe their surroundings and feel different sensations. This kickstarts the development of their gross and fine motor skills, confidence, and emotions. 

They should be allowed to move freely, exposed to different textures and sounds, and taken care of by loving and nurturing caregivers.

Stage 2: Solitary play

Up to two years of age, children play by themselves. They aren’t quite ready to play with other children. They manipulate objects on their own and can stay occupied for some time. If you organize a playdate, the kids will play alongside each other, not with each other.

Infants may look at colorful pictures, spend time in their baby gym, or stack blocks. Toddlers can put together puzzles, flip through books, or draw.


This type of play teaches children how to do things independently, boosts creativity, and further develops their brains and bodies. 

Stage 3: Onlooker play

After two years of age, children begin watching others play without engaging with them. Although they’re close physically, there isn’t any social interaction between them. 

You’ll notice your little one becoming more and more interested in other children. This is a segue into cooperative play. Your toddler will start observing others to take note of social cues and learn how to play in new ways. They’ll get to know the rules of social interaction, which will help them when they start making friends.

Stage 4: Parallel play

Next, when they’re about two to three years old, children start playing near their peers, but there’s still not a lot of interaction. They may share a play area, with each of them playing with their own toys. They often see others do an activity and then start doing it themselves.

Mimicking is an important part of this stage. As children observe others closely and develop a growing interest in them, it leads to them actually playing together.

Stage 5: Associative play

Associative play happens when a toddler begins to engage socially while playing, though there isn’t much interaction at this point. They’ll engage in the same activity as other children nearby, but they won’t bond with them.

For instance, several children might be using the same playground equipment at a trampoline park, but they’ll engage in different activities, such as climbing, swinging, and jumping.

Stage 6: Cooperative play


At around the age of three to four, children start engaging in cooperative play. This happens when they can play with other children and show interest in both the activity and their peers. True social interaction occurs and they make friends while playing.

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