Did you know your little one is always learning and growing, even during playtime? While it’s only natural for parents of young children to want their child to read, write and count better than everyone in the classroom, basic skills often overlooked by parents are the social and emotional aspects children need to thrive in different environments, which they gain through play.
Problem-solving, creativity, learning to share, and a willingness to take risks are all additional skills a child develops through play. You may notice your child loves imagining worlds while playing alone or finds pleasure in watching others play. This is natural and forms part of the Six Stages of Play.
Why is Play Important?
As mentioned, play is vitally important in childhood development because it serves as a multifaceted tool for growth and learning. It fosters physical development by promoting fine and gross motor skills as children manipulate objects, run, jump, and engage in physical activities. Through imaginative play, children develop crucial social and emotional skills, learning how to cooperate, negotiate, empathise, and regulate their emotions. Play aids in language development, as children engage in conversations, storytelling, and role-playing, expanding their vocabulary and communication abilities. It also provides a safe space for children to explore their interests, develop a sense of identity, and build self-esteem. In essence, play is the cornerstone of holistic childhood development, offering a rich, interactive platform for children to learn, grow, and thrive.
One of the biggest misconceptions regarding Montessori is that every aspect of the curriculum is made to put the child to work. This could not be further from the truth, and the aim of Montessori education has always been to combine play and learning in order to encourage a child’s curiosity and independence while still providing them with the space to have fun. Practical Life Activities such as sweeping, dusting and washing hands may give the impression of putting the child to “work,” but this provides countless opportunities for open-ended play, which supports the Six Stages of Play.
Here’s a closer look:
Unoccupied Play (0-6 months)
During this stage, infants engage in random movements and behaviours, such as wiggling their fingers or toes. This stage provides the foundation for the other stages of play and offers them an opportunity to explore the world around them. This type of play may not appear purposeful, but it’s an important stage for motor skill development and sensory exploration. As a parent, you can provide your little one with materials and textures that encourage them to observe their world.
Solitary Play (6-18 months)
In solitary play, children play alone and are typically absorbed in their own activities. They may play with toys or objects without interacting with other children. This stage allows children time to think and allows them to focus on developing their fine and gross motor skills by exploring toys, objects and their surroundings. You can support your child during this stage by providing them with toys which allow them to explore in different ways, such as blocks and figurines.
Onlooker Play (2-2.5 years)
During onlooker play, children observe others playing but do not actively participate. They may ask questions or make comments about what they see but don’t join in the play themselves. In this stage, they are like little sponges, watching and taking in everything. This stage is vital as it allows children to learn by watching and listening to others, which allows them to learn social cues and rules of play. You may feel the need to push your child to interact with others during this stage, but it’s important to trust your child and know that they will be okay. It may seem silly, but plan playdates! This will allow your child the opportunity to observe and absorb.
Parallel Play (2-3 years)
Parallel play involves children playing alongside each other but not directly with each other. They may use similar toys or engage in similar activities but do not actively engage or cooperate with their peers. Similar to the previous stage, it’s important to take a step back and enable your child to go at their own pace. It’s a step towards more social play but still allows children to play independently. You can support your child during this stage by playing alongside them, ensuring you don’t break their concentration. Separate puzzles, dolls and art supplies are great ways to join parallel play while still giving your little one a chance to explore independently.
Associative Play (3-4 years)
At this stage, children start to interact with each other during play but still have limited organisation or shared goals. They may exchange toys, share ideas, and talk to each other while playing, but there is no structured or coordinated play. This stage helps children develop social skills and the ability to cooperate with peers. All the lessons they learned previously will come in handy during this stage. Tips to support your child during this stage include open-ended toys such as rainbow blocks, animal figurines and Magna tiles.
Cooperative Play (4+ years)
Cooperative play is the most advanced stage of play, where children work together toward a common goal and have organised roles and rules. They engage in structured group activities, such as building a tower with blocks, playing team sports, or participating in pretend play scenarios. This stage promotes social skills, teamwork, and problem-solving abilities. A great way to encourage your child during this stage is by allowing them to participate in activities in which they need to work together. Family board games, sports, and a group art activity are all wonderful examples of cooperative play.
The ages listed in the various stages should be taken as general guidelines as children develop at their own unique pace.
The Six Stages of Play provides insights into the complex and dynamic process of growing up, showcasing how play serves as the foundation for physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development. Play is an important aspect of healthy brain development. Recognising and nurturing these stages empowers us to support and guide children on their developmental path, fostering their creativity, resilience, and social competence.