Parten’s 6 Stages of Play in Childhood, Explained! (2020)

6 stages of play

In 1929, Mildred Parten published her thesis in which she outlined the 6 stages of play.

These are play stages that children pass through in their first 5 years of age. Children go through each stage in a linear developmental pattern.

Parten’s 6 stages of play are:

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

Read Also: The 17 Types of Play Based Learning

Explanation of the 6 Stages of Play

1. Unoccupied Play (Birth – 3 months)

Unoccupied play can be observed from the earliest months in life. It is defined as sensory activities that lack focus or narrative.

Key characteristics include:

  • Lack of social interaction.
  • Lack of sustained focus.
  • No clear story lines during play.
  • Language use is non-existent or very limited.

Examples of unoccupied play include:

  • A child picking up, shaking, then discarding objects in their vicinity.
  • A child hitting and giggling at a play mobile in a cot.

These forms of play may seem un-educational at first, but have an important developmental purpose.

In the first few months of life children’s unoccupied play helps them orient themselves in the world. They learn to master their limbs and motor skills. They develop depth perception, tactile skills, and object permanence.

2. Solitary Play

(3 months – 2 ½ years)

Solitary play follows on from unoccupied play. It is play that involves a child playing alone and with little interest in toys outside of their immediate vicinity.

It is more focused and sustained than unoccupied play.

During this stage, children will still have little interest in adults or other children during their play.

Key characteristics include:

  • Increased focus and sustained attention on toys.
  • Emerging play narratives, such as use of symbolic play (using objects to represent other objects, such as push around a block to represent a car).
  • Disinterest in other children or adults during play.
  • Unstructured play, lacking clear goals.

Examples of solitary play include:

  • Two children playing with their toys but never looking at or showing any interest in each other.
  • A child who has developed the ability to sustain interest in one toy for more than 60 seconds.
  • An older child going for a walk through the park, exploring their surrounds.

Even after a child has gotten older and mastered more advanced forms of play, solitary play continues to be employed. Even in adulthood, we play alone to recharge, reflect and explore new ideas on our own.

Jean Piaget, a key education theorist, believes solitary play is vital for children to learn. Piaget labeled children ‘lone scientists’, exploring their environments through trial-and-error and discovery.

3. Onlooker Play

(2 ½ years – 3 ½ years)

Onlooker play is the first sign of children showing interest in the play behaviors of other children.

During this stage, children will observe other children’s play without getting involved themselves. They will often sit within earshot so they can hear other children’s play conversations.

Key characteristics include:

  • Children showing interest in other children’s play.
  • Withholding from play due to fear, disinterest, or hesitation.

Examples of onlooker play include:

  • Younger children in a multi-age Montessori classrooms will observe older children at play, but not get involved in the ‘big kids games’.
  • Adults watching a sporting event.
  • A shy child watching others play without getting involved herself due to timidness.

Listening and observing are powerful forms of learning. Albert Bandura, for example, showed the power of observation through his bobo doll experiments. In these experiments, children would observe adults playing with dolls. Children who saw children being aggressive toward the dolls were subsequently more aggressive themselves when they played with the dolls.

4. Parallel Play

(3 ½ years – 4 years)

Parallel play follows onlooker play. It involves children playing in proximity to one another but not together. They will tend to share resources and observe one another from a distance. However, they will not share the same game play or goals while playing.

Key characteristics include:

  • Playing in the same room and with the same resources, but not together.
  • Independent exploration and discovery.
  • Observing and mimicking.
  • Having separate goals and focuses during play.
  • Minimal communication with other children.

Examples of parallel play include:

  • A brother and sister playing with the same Lego set, but constructing different buildings.
  • Children sharing brushes and paints, but painting on different canvases.
  • Early play dates where parents bring their children to play together. These dates are usually about getting children more comfortable with peers of the same age, but younger children will often not start playing together too well.

5. Associative Play

(4 – 4 ½ years)

Associative play emerges when children begin acknowledging one another and working side-by-side, but not necessarily together.

Associative play differs from parallel play because children begin to share, acknowledge, copy and work with one another.

However, it is not quite the next stage (cooperative play) because children do not yet share common goals during play – in other words, they’re not yet playing ‘together’ in any cohesive way.

Key characteristics include:

  • Negotiating the sharing of resources.
  • Emerging chatter and language skills. Children ask each other questions about their play.
  • Children are still playing independently with different objectives and strategies.
  • Mimicking and observing continue to occur, but at a closer distance.

Examples of associative play include:

  • Children asking one another questions about their play, what they’re doing, and how they’re doing it. The children are nonetheless working on different tasks.
  • Children realizing there are limited resources in the play area, so negotiating with one another for which resources to use.

6. Cooperative Play

(4 ½ years and up)

Cooperative play emerges shortly after associative play and represents fully integrated social group play.

During this stage, expect to see children playing together and sharing the same game. The children will have the same goals, assign one another roles in the game, and collaborate to achieve their set game play goals.

This stage represents the achievement of socialization, but social skills will still be developing. Children may need support, guided practice and scaffolding to help them develop positive social skills such as sharing, compromise and turn taking.

Key characteristics include:

  • Children work together on a shared game.
  • Children share a common objective during game play.
  • Children have team roles or personas during game play.
  • There can be an element of compromise and sacrifice for the common good of the game.

Examples of cooperative play include:

  • Imaginative play, where children take on the roles of their favorite movie characters to act out a scene or create their own new scene.
  • Board games where children need to take turns in order for the game to proceed according to shared and agreed upon rules.
  • Organized sports.

Cooperative play is underpinned by the social constructivist learning theory. Key theorists from this approach include Barbara Rogoff and Lev Vygotsky. The central idea in this theory is that social interaction helps students to progress in their thinking. When students discuss things in groups, they get to see ideas from different perspectives and have their own ideas challenged and refined.

Strengths and Criticisms of Parten’s Theory

Strengths

  • This taxonomy of stages of play helps early childhood educators diversify play experiences.
  • Children’s development can be assessed against the taxonomy.
  • It recognizes that multiple different forms of play are beneficial for development.
  • It acknowledges the importance of social interaction during play to promote child development.

Criticisms

  • The guidelines for age ranges for observing changes in play stages are very loose and inaccurate.
  • There is no mention of important developments in play-based learning such as imaginative play, risky play and symbolic play.
  • It risks panicking parents who think their child should be engaging in one form of play or another.

Read Also: The Pros and Cons of Play Based Learning

Who was Mildred Parten?

Mildred Parten was born in 1902 in Minneapolis. She completed her doctoral dissertation on children’s play in the University of Minnesota in 1929. Within the dissertation, she proposed all 6 stages of play based on her observations of children. Her dissertation was titled: An Analysis of Social Participation, Leadership, and other Factors in Preschool Play Groups.

Her stages of play were again published in 1932 in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. The article was titled: Social Participation among Preschool Children.

Parten subsequently did her post-doctorate at the London School of Economics then headed to the Yale Institute of Human Relations (1930 – 1936). Later, she moved on to a role as director of statistics for a consumer purchases study for the Bureau of Labor Statistics (1936 – 1939). She spent the final years of her illustrious career at the University as Rochester as a survey consultant and research associate (1949-1956). She died in 1970 from a heart condition.

Facts Retrieved from:

Final Thoughts

The six stages of play, while mastered in a linear fashion (one after the other), can be returned to once mastered. In other words, even though a child has mastered cooperative play, you may still observe them engaging in parallel play.

While this play taxonomy can be useful for educators and parents, remember that different children have different play preferences. In other words, use it to learn about different forms of play rather than to see whether or not your child is ‘normal’.

References and Further Reading

All references are in APA style.

  • Bernard, J. (1970). Mildred Parten Newhall 1902–1970. American Sociologist, 5(4): 383. doi: https://www.jstor.org/stable/27701690
  • Gordon Biddle, K., Garcia Nevares, A., Roundtree Henderson, W., & Valero-Kerrick, A. (2014). Early childhood education: Becoming a professional. Los Angeles: SAGE. (Go to Chapter 10. Here’s a free link.)
  • Parten, M. (1929). An analysis of social participation, leadership, and other factors in preschool play groups. Retrieved from: https://www.worldcat.org/oclc/29143846.
  • Parten, M. (1932). Social participation among preschool children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 27(3): 243–269. doi: 10.1037/h0074524.
  • Parten, M. (1933). Leadership among preschool children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 27(4): 430–440. doi: 10.1037/h0073032.
  • Parten, M. (1933). Social play among preschool children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 28(2): 136–147. doi: 10.1037/h0073939.
  • Parten, M. & Newhall, S. (1943). Social behavior of preschool children. In Barker, R., Kounin, J. & Wright, H. (Eds.). Child behavior and development: A course of representative studies (pp. 509–525). New York: McGraw-Hill.