The first step to a child’s growth is Play. Playing, whether organized or unstructured, is always fun and kids always find a way to keep themselves busy.
Children don’t need toys all the time and can play with anything around, like a book or a pillow. But play is not just about having fun. A child goes through many developmental stages of play where they learn important life skills.
When a child loves to pretend play, they use their imagination, and that in turn helps them to understand their emotions and different situations.
When a child plays with other kids, they learn about social interactions and behaviors. But these learnings happen at different stages and a child flourishes when he is given the space and time for this exploration.
There are 6 stages of play during early childhood, all of which are important for your child’s developmental milestones. All of the stages of play involve exploring, being creative, and having fun.
This list explains how children’s play changes by age as they grow and develop social skills.
1.Unoccupied Play (0-6 months)
This is the first exploratory stage where they learn to make eye contact, recognize the parent, and respond to them with a smile. They are learning and discovering how their body moves, exploring sensory skills, by playing with the rattle, following the sound of the rattle, and so on. The baby is still figuring out the new world, trying to make sense of the surroundings.
2.Solitary Play (6-12 months)
In this stage, the baby starts to interact with the family members by clapping, playing peek-a-boo, and responding to distinguished friendly, angry voices and facial expressions. They learn to balance their neck muscles and get head control.
They are starting to move into the independent play stage by playing to engage themselves with everyday objects. Playing with toys like stuffed animals, dolls, plush toys, and books, makes them self-sufficient and improves their cognitive development and Motor skills. They try to grab and grasp, and reaches for objects near them. This still is a stage where a baby plays alone. They are not interested in playing with others quite yet.
Here the child starts observing others and tries to imitate them, like, saying ‘hi’ or ‘bye’. They start identifying themselves in the mirror and imitate pretend play.
This is the stage where they start playing with action, like putting and removing things from a box, and searching for hidden objects. Onlooker play is common for younger children whose vocabulary is still developing.
Kids this age start looking at how other kids play but still need the time to play along. A two-year-old kid likes to play side-by-side with others but is yet to share. Watching helps kids gain confidence and prepare for future stages of play.
The child displays a sense of ownership towards the toys in this stage and starts including the toys in pretend play, treating a stick like a sword or a rocket. They communicate with simple emotions, verbalize their desires/feelings, start obeying simple rules, and have an awareness of a parent’s approval or disapproval of their action.
If we have two 3yr olds in the same room, they start playing side-by-side. Plenty of time, even though it appears that they aren't paying attention to each other, they truly are and often mimic their playmate's behavior.
This is the stage when a child starts to interact with others during play, takes turns with other children but there is not a large amount of interaction. For example, kids might all be playing on the same piece of playground equipment but all doing different things like climbing, swinging, etc.
The kid starts playing with mechanical toys, talks about their feelings, and expresses guilt when caught doing something wrong, progressing in their emotional development.
This stage of play helps little ones develop a whole host of skills, such as socialization, problem-solving, and language development.
6.Cooperative Play (4+ yrs)
When a child plays together with and has an interest in both the activity and other children involved in playing they are participating in cooperative play.
Cooperative play is where all the stages come together and children truly start playing together.
They start interacting, taking turns, and negotiating, with other kids. They play organized games with friends and also enjoy changing the rules of the games sometimes.
Imaginative play goes one step higher where kids start cooking, dressing up, going to space, and so on.
As they start playing along with other kids, they learn to share and come across new aspects of winning and losing. While parents and caregivers should encourage and support play opportunities, remember that children need their own time and space to learn these skills, which will come independently.
The beauty is that children discover concepts and skills as they play their games, all in good fun. Child development progresses in its own way and we need to support this process.
These stages are general guidelines for what to expect of your child’s play skills, but remember every child is different and if you have concerns about any chances of developmental delay, or for more ideas on how to help your child’s development, bring them up with your healthcare provider.