We as humans are social beings, so all parents look forward to seeing their little ones begin to make friends and interact with others on their own. Your baby’s social and emotional development is one of the most important and meaningful parts of his long-term happiness and can also be fascinating and fun for you to observe and participate in it! 

There are six stages of social play, each one of which plays an important part in the next. Read on to see what each stage entails, how to identify what stage your baby is in, as well as fun ways to encourage each one and help your baby’s overall development. 

Stage 1: Unoccupied play (Birth – 3 months)

  • What does it look like?
    • At this stage, it seems like your baby is not doing much. He’s moving his arms and legs around, exploring his hands and feet, and probably putting everything in sight in his mouth. 
  • Why does it look like this?
    • All of these movements might seem arbitrary, but they are an important part of your little one’s social play development. As he understands his limbs in relation to his body, his eyes, and his environment, he will begin exploring other things during the second stage of social play. 

  • How can I participate?
    • At this stage, it’s all about your baby and you! As he moves, help him practice his baby games by giving him your fingers to grab onto, or have him kick your hands with his feet. This will give him the sensory input his body and brain need to understand the world around him and how to interact with it. 

Stage 2: Solitary play (3 months – 3 years)

  • What does it look like?
    • This is when your baby starts to play with different objects in his world. He is interested in playing with items from his environment, but he only plays by himself.
  • Why does it look like this?
    • At this point, your little one still doesn’t know how to interact with others and is still discovering the world on his own. His play is solitary because it allows him to explore his environment and all the new things he encounters –every new object or situation is a learning opportunity. 
  • How can I participate?
    • You can help your baby’s play develop by constantly introducing him to new objects and environments. By doing this, you will feed his creativity and desire to learn and play. Anything from giving him a piece of crumpled paper to getting him bright and engaging baby games and toys that will help him understand his world better. 

Stage 3: Onlooker play (18 months to 2.5 years)

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  • What does it look like?
    • At this stage, which sometimes overlaps with solitary play, your little one is suddenly aware that his peers are also playing. He will not interact with them, but he may ask questions about them, and be interested in observing how they play. 
  • Why does it look like this?
    • This is when your child learns from others. Until now, his baby games have been focused on learning from his environment, but now he gets to see how other kids around him play. This stage will help him become mentally prepared with the way others play before participating.
  • How can I participate?
    • At this stage, it’s important for your little one to have lots of interactions with his peers. Taking him to playgroups, putting him in daycare, and setting up playdates will help him get more comfortable around his peers and soon he’ll be ready to interact with them. 

Stage 4: Parallel play (2.5 – 3 years)

  • What does it look like?
    • The parallel play looks like a combination of solitary play and onlooker play. At this stage, your little one is playing on his own, while sitting next to his peers and often observing them play. 
  • Why does it look like this?
    • This stage allows your child to learn about interactions with others. He knows how he likes to play and now wants to play around peers. This teaches him about being a part of a group, peer regulation, and understanding the social environment.
  • How can I participate?
    • At this stage, it’s still mostly about his peers! Continue to take him to playgroups and set up playdates as often as possible!

The last two stages of social play are associate play and cooperative play. These are both typically observed when children are about 3-5+ years.

Stage 5: Associate play (3 – 4 years)

  • What does it look like?
    • During associate play, the children involved play with a similar toy or activity (trains, building blocks, playground equipment, etc.), but each child has their own goal in mind. At this stage, most interactions have to do with sharing different toys or taking turns, without any set structure, rules, or sequence to the play.
  • Why does it look like this?
    • This is when your child understands how to get along with others. He’s spent a lot of time playing and observing, and now he’ll start to understand what it takes to get what he wants when there are other people involved or they are playing with what he wants to play with. At this stage, your little one is having his first social interactions with peers and engaging in what this requires.
  • How can I participate?
    • You can promote this stage by encouraging your little one to spend time with others. You might want to sit with him and a group of his peers and play with them for a few minutes, and then slowly remove yourself from the group. This will give your child the comfort to approach the group and the confidence to participate alone.

Stage 6: Cooperative play (4 – 5+ years)

  • What does it look like?
    • This stage looks like what most of us know as social play. At this point, your child begins sharing ideas and toys, setting rules for games, and collaborating toward one communal goal. 
  • Why does it look like this?
    • When your child reaches this stage, he feels comfortable with the rules of social interaction and regulation, with being part of a group, and with play itself. At this point, the social dynamics between the children become more determined: rules are set and followed, there is at least one leader, and participants know clearly whether they’re part of the game or not.  
  • How can I participate?
    • This stage may be accompanied by a lot of questions. He might not always be sure about the rules of a game, or how to join a group that has already been established. Your role here is to help him navigate these new, more complex social dynamics that will continue for the rest of his life. The best thing to do is be honest, supportive, and reassure him of what he brings to the table when making new friends and interacting with others. 

Social play is and will always be an important part of your little one’s life. The way he develops his social skills will influence how he relates to others and to the world. As a parent or caregiver, you should feel encouraged to interact with your child during all stages of social play, and get creative when playing with him. Regardless of when he reaches these stages, you will know how to help and where your little one is in his social development.

With Kinedu you can support your child’s development while he plays. You will find thousands of fun and personalized activities according to his age and development stage. Kinedu has indoor and outdoor activities for every stage, with ideas for parent and caregiver participation. This way, in addition to having fun, you can spend quality time with your little one while you help him develop his social abilities.