A Complete Guide to Play Development Stages in Children

image shows two young girls laughing with music instruments

Watching children play is one of the most intriguing things about being a parent. But did you know there are certain types of play that can help encourage a child’s development? 

The developmental stages of play in children allow you to better understand the types of play your child should be involved in at various phases throughout early childhood. 

In this article, we’ll break down the different play development stages, how toys such as dolls prams and pushchairs, can contribute to their development and provide you all the information on how you can better facilitate the stages of play. 

What are the stages of play development?

Unoccupied Play

(0 – 3 months)

Unoccupied play is the very first play development stage and it starts from birth. The first play stage involves your child making random uncontrolled movements of the feet, arms, hands, and legs. 

Once your little one begins tummy time sessions (when the umbilical cord comes off), it also forms part of unoccupied play sessions. 

While for us it doesn’t look like much, your child is learning a lot during the unoccupied play phase. They are not only learning how their bodies move but how those movements affect things around them. For example, if I swat this mobile, it makes it move. 

As your child progresses, this understanding of their bodies in relation to the things around them expands.

For example, if you grab your toe too hard it hurts, or pushing a toy off the counter makes a loud noise. All of this teaches children about action and response, a vital part of understanding the world. 

Facilitating unoccupied play

There isn’t too much you need to do to encourage unoccupied play, it’s a very natural phase. All you need to do is ensure your baby has a safe space with enough floor room to get moving. Something like a baby play gym is a great option as it keeps kids safe and has objects that encourage movement. 

You might also want to consider providing something stimulating to look at. When babies start playing with toys they struggle to focus as their eyes are still developing. A great option is anything black and white. The high contrast helps little eyes focus. 

Learning the right time to start sensory play with babies can help with this.

Solitary Play

(3 months – 2 years)

The second in the stages of play starts at three months and runs to around two years of age. During the solitary phase, children often play alone (hence the name). 

They generally engage in self-directed play. This means exploring their environments or playing with toys that they choose without direction. 

The solitary phase brings on a higher level of focus where children play for longer periods in a single sitting. 

It’s during this phase that children build a lot of their cognitive skills as they learn to experiment with the world around them. They begin identifying objects they like, recognising patterns, and forming mental pictures

The solitary phase also encourages the development of problem-solving skills where children learn to deal with things around them on their own. This in turn also develops a child’s independence and self-awareness. 

Some parents worry that their child doesn’t show much interest in other people around them, other kids included. But don’t panic, this is a normal play phase for younger children to go through. So, don’t try to structure the play too much, let your child explore what they want and learn along the way. 

Facilitating solitary play

The most important thing for facilitating solitary play is providing a variety of toys. Remember, what a three-month-old plays with is very different from what a one-year-old – and even more so a two-year-old plays with.

So, ensure you have a range of age-appropriate toys around. Children’s play needs change dramatically with age. For example, a baby under one will benefit from wooden building blocks and teething toys. 

Between 9-18 months your baby is going to start seriously moving. They go from crawling a little to tumbling around trying to get the hang of walking. Many development specialists recommend toys with wheels that can help children learn to balance. For example, our Daisy Chain Little Zipp Dolls Pushchair is the perfect walking companion. 

Although tempting, try not to get too involved. The whole point of the solitary play phase is for your child to independently choose their toy and interact with them. 

Onlooker Play

(2 years)

All children develop at different rates, but around the two-year mark, children begin observing other children, learning from the way they do things. 

The onlooker play phase shifts children from a self-centric view of the world to wanting to learn and explore by watching how other little humans do it. 

The onlooker phase is just that, a bystander phase. Your child may not want to engage with other children. This doesn’t mean they’re antisocial, but they’re rather learning through observation.

You’ll be surprised just how much your child picks up from others during the onlooker phase. They begin learning about social cues and understanding how playing with others works. This is a vital part of play development as it prepares young children for engaging with others when the time is right. 

So, if you see your little one observing what their older siblings do, don’t try to get them to include the younger sibling. Observing from a distance during the onlooker phase is normal and shouldn’t be discouraged. 

Facilitating Onlooker play

Your child needs to be around other children in a similar age group to successfully encourage this phase. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Daycare
  • Visiting the park
  • Seeing friends with kids of a similar age
  • Playgroups
  • Mom groups

Parallel Play

(2 – 3 years)

Parallel play generally starts at around two and a half years old. This phase sees children playing alongside others, but not interacting. 

During the parallel play phase, social skills are further developed. This might sound a bit strange, considering the children don’t interact with one another, but it happens on a different level. 

Think about it, if you go to a coffee shop and sit next to someone. You may not be directly interacting socially but you are both in a social situation experiencing the same environment. It’s the same for children during the parallel play phase. 

A good example is if one child is finished playing with a doll, they might place it down. The next child picks up the doll and has their play session. This small indirect interaction develops social skills surrounding turns. 

The parallel play phase also encourages communication between children of a similar age. They may not play together, but they do start learning how to talk with others. For example, asking for a turn with a certain toy or finding out why someone dressed the doll in a certain outfit. 

It’s not uncommon for kids to get their answers and quickly turn their attention back to playing solo. In the adult world, rude! In kid world – totally normal. 

During this phase, children also start picking up on empathy and feelings. This comes up quite a bit as children learn about taking turns, so a few tantrums are expected. 

Facilitating parallel play

Similar to onlooker play, it’s important that children are around other children of a similar age. It allows them to play with similar toys in the same environment, encouraging sharing

The most important thing during this phase is ensuring there are enough age-appropriate toys for everyone to play independently. Yes, sharing is encouraged, but if there’s an obvious favourite, providing two or three of that specific toy might be a good idea. 

Associative Play

(3 – 4 years)

In the stages of play, associative play is when the fun begins. During this phase, children develop the communication skills needed to play with others. Associate play is when kids start directly interacting with one another in the same activities with the same toys. 

During the associative play phase, children collaborate, sharing what they have deliberately to give everyone a turn. But this is a developing skill. Most children during this phase are very much still concerned about their own play sessions being fun, rather than sharing that fun with everyone else. 

However, kids learn very quickly that if they don’t give friends a turn, they also won’t be given a turn next time. It’s a tough lesson at three years old, but an important one. 

As children develop through the associative play phase their communication skills improve. They begin understanding boundaries and how to respectfully communicate and work alongside others. 

Facilitating associative play

The aim during the associative play phase is to get children of a similar age to play and interact in the same environment. The easiest way to do this is by providing toys that require children to play together. 

For example, our Daisy Chain Zipp Twin Max Dolls Pushchair allows two children to play together, each with their own doll. The pushchair encourages those in early childhood to take turns while communicating about what the pushchair is doing (where it’s going). 

Cooperative Play

(4 years+)

The final stage in the stages of play is cooperative play. It is similar to the associative phase with one distinct difference. Children are learning how to play in a way that focuses on a common goal. 

So, rather than simply focusing on their own fun play session, cooperative play becomes about how to make the play fun for everyone involved. The understanding of working with others and deliberately engaging throughout play improves dramatically during the cooperative play phase. 

You’ll often see children engaging in pretend play, where everyone involved takes on a different role in the scenario. Some common scenes you might see:

  • Shopkeeper and customers
  • Chefs and diners
  • Teacher and students
  • Coach and sports teams

Generally, children playing out scenes come from situations they are familiar with.  

This stage of play improves children’s language skills drastically. This, in turn, develops how your child communicates as a whole, improving their problem-solving and negotiating skills. 

As they get more comfortable, their self-confidence also improves.

Facilitating cooperative play

The fundamentals for encouraging cooperative play are simple, provide children with the opportunity to collaborate and work towards a shared goal. 

This can be as simple as organising a team-based activity like building a tower from blocks or arranging a sports match. Creating a space to encourage imaginative play is also important, where children can play together in the same scenario. 

Our range of doll pushchairs along with the Susie Interactive Doll can take a regular imaginative play session and turn it into a real-life cooperative play fantasy. The role of parent and baby is one of the most popular role-playing games for children. 

Encourage play with Play Like Mum

Seeing your child go through the developmental stages of play in early childhood can be exciting. You get to witness your mini-me hit their milestones while developing into a caring child that is socially and self-aware. 

The stages of play can help you understand child development and what your child should be learning. But you shouldn’t take the age ranges as the be-all and end-all. Each child is different and during early childhood, they may progress at different rates to other children. 

The point is knowing what your child should be learning and how you can help facilitate this in the best way possible. Like providing toys that help child development through simulating real-world experiences during a play session. 

Our range of dolls pushchair accessories can take playtime to a whole new level. If you need some help figuring out the right doll pram for your child’s age, we’re here to help.


Are the age ranges for stages of play concrete? 

No, it’s very important as a parent to understand that all children are different and that they develop at their own rates. The stages of play are simply general guidelines based on the average. 

When should I ask a doctor about my child’s stages of play development?

It’s difficult to say. If you notice that your child remains disinterested in playing with or observing other children, it might be a good idea to ask your doctor about your child’s development.

Can doll play help during the developmental stages of play? 

Absolutely, playing with a doll in the later development stages of play can help improve a child’s soft skills as it encourages them to talk with other children. Doll play can also promote sharing and empathy.