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Fostering the 6 Stages of Play - Safari Ltd®

Fostering the 6 Stages of Play

Play is the ultimate way for children to make sense of their worlds. Play gives kids agency and is the perfect arena for is the way children learn to be learners.

Through play, our little humans orient themselves, build understanding, and regulate emotions. There are 6 widely recognized play stages that Mildred Parten identified that include: Unoccupied Play, Solitary Play, Onlooker Play, Parallel Play, Associative Play, and Cooperative Play. Children typically pass through these 6 stages within their first 5 years of life
We begin to play as babies and hopefully continue into adulthood. While most children will generally pass through these stages in a predictable pattern, all children are unique and the timeline is not definitive. The following 6  stages of play are general guidelines for what to expect in your child's developmental journey, but remember every child is different and if you have concerns bring them up with your healthcare provider.
Unoccupied play is typically found in babies from birth through three months. This period sets the stage for future play. 
Babies are not typically engaged with others while in unoccupied play and will make seemingly random movements with their arms, legs, hands, and feet during this stage of play. Newborns are doing important work during this stage, getting a feel for their body parts and building skills to transition into learning how to reach out for toys and bring items to their mouths. It is an important stage of a child's healthy development.
Parents can encourage this stage by providing stimulating mobilestoys, and high contrast baby books and allowing your baby to have a some time lying on their backs on a blanket or in a crib. 

This type of play is done alone. Kids in this stage will often be immersed in their own play without noticing other children nearby. They will be fully engaged in exploring their own worlds.

Solitary play is most common in babies through toddler years, but is seen in older children (especially those engaged in a special interest, lacking a playmate, or for various other reasons). The ability to play independently is an important skill for children of all ages to develop and enjoy.

Any high interest, age appropriate toy works well during this stage. Little ones at this age usually also enjoy sensory toys and experiences. Parents can encourage this type of play by setting out high interest objects, open-ended toys (animal figurines, blocks, puppets, & dolls), and by starting out being nearby but not interfering. 


During this stage of play, children watch others at play but do not engage.

This type of activity is more common in younger children, usually toddlers, but is seen in older children as well (especially if a child is timid, hesitant in new situations, or for various other reasons). It is the beginning of children learning the social norms of play. 

This is a great age to take kids to parks, public libraries, splash pads, and other community play spaces. Your little one can play and will also have ample opportunity to people watch. A helpful tip for a more timid child is to take a bag of toys and a blanket in case they want to play more off to the side.


Parallel play occurs between around 18 months until about age 2. It involves children playing next to each other but generally not interacting or engaging in social exchanges.

While this play occurs in the vicinity of others, it remains an independent endeavor. The chosen activity or toys are often similar to those around them, but there is usually very little mimicking or attempts to change the way other children play. 

Time to start attending playdates or taking visits to public play areas with plenty of interactive play options - think public libraries with train tables, parks, local toy stores (like ToyTopia in Nocatee, FL) with hands-on displays, interactive exhibits at museums or zoos, etc.


Associative play is when children engage in activities with peers or adults, usually starting around age 3.

Children will use toys and materials to explore and interact with others. It's an interactive play usually but each child has their own agenda and way of playing with materials.

Open-ended toys, like building toys or Safari Ltd. figurines, are great for this type of play because they allow children to play together, interact, and negotiate materials while also being able to freely pursue their own play objectives. Continue with playdates and visits to public play areas to help foster this new stage of play and interactions with other children.


Collaborative play is the most complex of the six stages of play, and involves social interaction, shared goals, communication, problem-solving, and negotiation.

Children will play and work with others towards a common goal or purpose. This social play helps foster cooperation skills, expands vocabulary, and develops ability to communicate and share ideas. Vital social skills are built during this important play; kids learn about taking turns, sharing, following rules, and compromising.

This is a great stage for introducing group games or starting a family game night. Working together to achieve a common goal in cooperative activities is wonderful as well. Work on a puzzle together, plant a small garden, plan and put on a puppet show, etc. There are also many children's books available, like the I Get Along with Others series,  to help kids learn about navigating social situations. 


Through all stages of play, caregivers and educators can help to support children's play by modeling appropriate play behavior, providing guidance and feedback, introducing and facilitating cooperative games, and providing a variety of stimulating, open-ended toys.


"Toys are children's words and play is their language."

-Garry L. Landreth


 At Safari Ltd. and in our toy store, ToyTopia, we fully embrace the power of play! 

We’re not here to just sell toys and call it a day, we strive to help unleash imaginations, create memorable moments, and facilitate development.  Set the stage for your kids to play and watch the magic unfold! 


Additional resources on play & developmental milestones:





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