How our kids learn to play: The stages of development

Emily Hanlon

Emily Hanlon

Also known as “The Playful Psychologist”, Emily is a Clinical Psychologist with specific interest in difficulties including Autism, ADHD, mood-related disorders, anxiety, and other behavioural concerns. She’s passionate about what play means for the brain and its impact on children’s day-to-day lives.
Updated on Mar 07, 2024 · 6 mins read
How our kids learn to play: The stages of development

Learning through play is one of the most important (and also most underrated) ways that children learn, grow, and develop. In fact, most social and emotional development occurs through play experiences.  

So much of what we want children to learn doesn’t need to be formally taught to them in early childhood, it can be learnt through play.

As parents, we of course want the best for our children, but sometimes in an effort to ensure they are reaching their full potential, we suppress  their social and emotional growth by taking time away for play instead making time for ‘learning.’

How does play support development?

Motor skills

During play, we also see improvements in a child’s fine and gross motor skills. 

Play that involves running, climbing, ball games, jumping, digging, or rolling all assist in the development of gross motor skills. Fine motor skills are activities in which you use the small muscles in your hands and wrists to make precise movements. Play that involves picking up small items, building towers with LEGO® DUPLO® bricks, pushing cars, etc, all help with the development of fine motor skills. 

When a child’s physical development is supported, their overall health and sense of well-being is supported too. This can then lead to the evolution of other important life skills such as self-dressing, preparing a basic meal, and packing away. 

Social emotional development

Crucially, play allows children to cultivate the skills linked with social and emotional learning. 

This encompasses understanding both their own and others’ thoughts and feelings, enabling them to communicate and interact effectively. Through play, they grasp emotional awareness, regulation, and expression, enhancing their social problem-solving abilities.

Engaging in imaginative play is a vital social skill that children develop, that plays a vital role in their social growth. Activities like dress-ups, role-playing, and using dolls or figurines contribute significantly to a child’s social and emotional development. Through such play, children learn essential skills like negotiating, taking turns, compromising, and managing their emotions.

Cognitive development

During playtime, whether alone or with friends, children also enhance cognitive abilities such as critical thinking, memory, attention, and visual processing. Toys like puzzles, LEGO® DUPLO® sets and figurines play a crucial role in fostering cognitive development, persistence, and resilience among children.

The developmental stages of play

Stage 1: Unoccupied Play (Birth – 3 months)

At this stage babies are making a lot of movements with their arms, legs, hands, feet, etc. They are learning about and discovering how their body moves. There is not much ‘play’ you need to do on your end. It’s more about providing them with opportunities for exploration.

Incorporate ample tummy time opportunities (even if it’s only in short bursts), encourage independent movement, and allow exploration of their surroundings. Infants perceive the world and build relationships through their senses. Therefore, early play should offer numerous sensory-rich experiences, fostering a sense of safety, nurturing, and empathic connection.

Stage 2: Solitary Play (Birth – 2 Years)

This stage marks the beginning of solitary play for a child. It’s an early stage where social interaction hasn’t fully developed for playing with others yet.

Children can explore solo play, so don’t feel the need to direct their play or limit it based on what you think they should be doing. For example, while you might see LEGO DUPLO bricks as for building, your child might enjoy banging them together.

Encourage your child to imitate or engage in “real-world” tasks like helping with groceries, sweeping, or putting laundry away. This gives them a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Again, play does not need to be complicated. You can use many of the items you likely already have lying around at home.

Stage 3: Spectator/Onlooker Behaviour (2 Years)

During this stage, children begin to watch other children playing but may not frequently play with them, at least not in a social sense.

Stage 4: Parallel Play (2+ Years)

When a child plays alongside or near others but does not play with them this stage is referred to as parallel play. Children may be doing the same thing as each other but are not associating with or cooperating with each other.

Stage 5: Associate Play (3-4 years)

This is typically when a child begins to engage with others during play, although interactions are still limited. They might play alongside others but not necessarily together, occasionally passing items without having a mutual goal.

Pretend play develops various skills like role-playing, social dialogue, problem-solving, and boosting language development. Ideas for pretend play include dress-ups, tea parties, doctor play, building with LEGO® DUPLO® bricks, and more. It encourages imaginative and fantasy play, turning simple items like boxes or paper bags into cars, doll beds, spaceships, and more. 

Stage 6: Co-operative play (4+ years)

When children engage in cooperative play, they actively participate in play-based activities alongside others, showing interest in both the task and their peers. This stage is pivotal as it marks the cognitive ability to recognise differing perspectives and understand that others may think and feel differently. Simple games like “snap” introduce social concepts like turn-taking and winning/losing, while collaborative tasks with LEGO® DUPLO® sets encourage teamwork and listening to others’ ideas. 

The LEGO® DUPLO® Animal Train set features four cute buildable animal toys that children can work together to create. They can use their problem-solving and collaboration skills to follow the coloured construction cards, or create critters of their own invention. It also develops their dexterity and fine motor skills, as well as making them giggle with the wobbling rooster head. With movable carriages for dynamic play, they can wheel the train between each other and delve into storytelling magic. 

How much should my child be playing?

The amount of time children should spend playing varies depending on their age, developmental stage, and individual needs. Typically, 60 minutes of active play each day is suitable, with additional time remaining for free play and unstructured activities. While it is important to prioritise play, try not to focus on numbers. After all, the quality of play far outweighs the quantity. 

What if my child isn't playing with others?

If your child isn’t playing with others, this is not a reason to panic. Engaging with other children can seem overwhelming to many children and can be a result of feelings of nervousness, difficulty with communication, difficulty separating from their caregiver, or not having been in many situations with same-aged peers. 

Some children may need more time to feel comfortable interacting with others. Encourage your child to participate in social activities at their own pace, and offer praise and encouragement for their efforts.

By providing opportunities for social interaction, modelling positive behaviour, and supporting your child’s social development, you can help them build confidence and skills for playing with others. 

If you are concerned that your child is not meeting a developmental milestone, you could check in with your paediatrician or a child psychologist. Getting a second opinion can never hurt. These clinicians are here to help you and your child get through a tricky time. Seeing a psychologist does not mean you have ‘failed’ as a parent, it means you are intuitive enough to understand that you and your child need support.

LEGO, LEGO DUPLO and the Minifigure are trademarks of The LEGO Group. ©2024 The LEGO Group.

This is a paid partnership between Kiindred and the LEGO® DUPLO® Brand.

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