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6 Stages of Social Play Development in Children

How do children’s social play skills develop as they age? As we know, a three month old doesn’t play like a three year old who doesn’t play like a six year old. That's because most children follow a path that involves growth from year to year (and even week to week and month to month!). I find this development in social play so fascinating.

Here are the 6 stages of social play development throughout childhood, according to Parten (1932).

Unoccupied Play (Birth - 3 months): Babies are learning about their bodies. They spend most of their time moving their arms, feet, and legs.

Solitary Play (Birth - 2 years): During this stage, children enjoy playing on their own and exploring their environment independently.

Spectator/Onlooker Behavior (2 - 2.5 years): Children are now beginning to watch other children from a distance but there is no effort to join the play.

Parallel Play (2.5 - 3 years): Children are playing in closer proximity to one another but are not interacting with one another. They are paying a lot of attention to each other during this stage.

Associative Play (3 years): Children are becoming more interested in one another than they are in toys. They may share materials, but are not working together during play.

Co-operative Play (4 years): Children are sharing toys and ideas, as well as following rules during play. They are beginning to work together during play!

So how does this apply to Speech Language Pathology? There are a few ways!

  1. We can observe a child and see if their level of social play corresponds to their language level and age.

  2. SLPs can set up therapy sessions and activities at the level of the child’s social play. If a child is engaging in Onlooker Play, trying to set up a Pretend Play Center where the kids are all engaging with one another, will likely not be successful.

  3. We can anticipate what level of play the child will be in next and we scaffold that play in therapy sessions.

Need a handout summarizing these levels? Hop on my email list, get your password and then grab yours from my Freebie Library!

Information taken from:

Parten, M (1932). "Social participation among preschool children". Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 28 (3): 136–147.


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