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Baby games: The 6 stages of social play

toddlers building towers together

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 their 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. They’re moving arms and legs around, exploring their hands and feet, and probably putting everything in sight in their 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 they understands their limbs in relation to their body, their eyes, and their environment, they 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 they move, help them practice their baby games by giving them your fingers to grab onto, or have them kick your hands with their feet. This will give them the sensory input their body and brain need to understand the world around them 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 their world. They are interested in playing with items from their environment, but they only play by themselves.
  • 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 their own. Their play is solitary because it allows them to explore their environment and all the new things they encounter –every new object or situation is a learning opportunity. 
  • How can I participate?
    • You can help your baby’s play develop by constantly introducing them to new objects and environments. By doing this, you will feed their creativity and desire to learn and play. Anything from giving them a piece of crumpled paper to getting them bright and engaging baby games and toys that will help them understand their world better. 

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

  • What does it look like?
    • At this stage, which sometimes overlaps with solitary play, your little one is suddenly aware that their peers are also playing. They will not interact with them, but they 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, their baby games have been focused on learning from their environment, but now they get to see how other kids around them play. This stage will help then 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 their peers. Taking them to playgroups, putting them in daycare, and setting up playdates will help them get more comfortable around their peers and soon they’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 their own, while sitting next to their peers and often observing them play. 
  • Why does it look like this?
    • This stage allows your child to learn about interactions with others. They know how they like to play and now want to play around peers. This teaches them 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 their peers! Continue to take them 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. They’ve spent a lot of time playing and observing, and now they’ll start to understand what it takes to get what they want when there are other people involved or they are playing with what they want to play with. At this stage, your little one is having their 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 them and a group of their 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, they feel 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. They 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 them navigate these new, more complex social dynamics that will continue for the rest of their life. The best thing to do is be honest, supportive, and reassure them of what they bring 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 they develop their social skills will influence how they relate 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 them. Regardless of when they reach these stages, you will know how to help and where your little one is in their social development.

With Kinedu you can support your child’s development while they plays. You will find thousands of fun and personalized activities according to their 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 them develop social abilities.

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