Encouraging Different Stages of Play


"Play is the highest form of research."  -Albert Einstein

Play presents a multitude of evolving opportunities for parents to encourage the social and emotional development of children. Here are a few practical tips to help children get the most out of play, at every stage [1]in their development:

Solitary Play

  • Notice what is being explored. As your child plays intently on their own, for example taking a ball and watching it go down a chute, watch for how they are exploring, creating and learning about how things work. The child is “making meaning” of their world. During this exploration, adults can join in and celebrate the importance of what they are exploring. This recognition[2] increases your child’s self confidence, creates trust, and strengthens the connection[3] between caregiver and child.

  • Remark on WHO the “play audience is." Picture your child holding a banana and using it as a telephone...listen for who their imagined “play audience” might be. Are they re-enacting “relationships” in their world? Adults can build on this re-enactment. Grab a banana and talk back!

  • Sit back and applaud solo time. One of the joys of solitary play is that this time on their own can still benefit social and emotional growth! There is no requirement to jump in and join in at every opportunity! Give your child the space to imagine and explore on their own as this fosters concentration, creativity and focus[4].

  • Give language to emotions along the way. Your child has been working carefully on trying to stack a pile of blocks. As the process of stacking occurs... notice your child’s reaction and response to the activity. Are they determined? Are they frustrated? Are they confused? Are they curious? Are they proud? Offer the words that give meaning to their emotional experience[5] as they are playing.  

Parallel or Side-by-Side Play 

  • Invite mirroring. Notice if your child is monitoring others in the room or copying other children or adults movements (a common occurrence). This “mirroring” is an important part of building rapport and relationships with others . Encourage the mimicking and matching of movement between parallel players!

  • Introduce others’ emotions. Continue to help identify emotions in the child as well as with his or her playmates. For example: “Sally dropped her bucket – how do you think she feels? She looks sad. Shall we help her pick it up?”

  • Build the bridge. When you notice that your child is ready to move to another layer of play, encourage them to “get closer” and begin to share materials with other children.

Associative Play - Playing together but not yet cooperatively

  • Promote sharing. Have a variety of materials available for your child and their peers to choose from. While the children are not necessarily working on one collective goal, sharing their resources will naturally increase social interactions.

  • Stay in the moment. The delight of this stage of play is that it is all about the experience of “being with others”.  Slow down and comment on what you see unfolding before your eyes. Foster belonging by noticing what each person is contributing to in the space.

  • It’s all about the drama. Around the age of three or four, children begin to play with others in ways that include pretend, dramatic and fantasy play[6] in which they share in the same emerging “story” together. In playing out the components of a “story”, they are adding to each other’s play experience, experimenting with defining social roles and piquing each other’s imagination. ­ Celebrate the imaginative play and what they are learning about each other and their world through this play.

Cooperative Play 

  • Support perspective sharing. Empathy and perspective development is based on feeling what it might be like to “walk in another person’s shoes”. So literally provide an assortment of dramatic play clothing, props and shoes. Encourage your child to embody a new character to deepen his or her understanding of social roles.

  • Promote collaborative goals. Working together on a goal might look like a group of children raking leaves and jumping in the piles together, taking part in a community garden, embarking on a family scavenger hunt, or engaging in the daily household routines and chores. These types of activities require cooperation.

  • Point out conflicts. Along with teamwork and cooperative play there will, undoubtedly, be obstacles that arise. When this happens, embrace the opportunity to introduce and practice problem solving[7], support negotiation and guide the children towards empathy and understanding.

Developmental Psychologists have identified the “original four” stages of play. Each stage builds a young child’s emerging skills in emotional management, impulse control, empathy, creativity and being a friend. 

“Inflated” praise may even be harmful to some children: some studies show those with low self-esteem actually shrank from new challenges when adults said things like “you’re incredibly good at this” versus merely saying “you’re good at this.” 

There is art to praise and encouraging resilient confidence!

Author Daniel Stern integrates research on attachment, dependency and trust to highlight how interactions between caregiver and child strengthen development.

Concentration, creativity and focus are part and parcel of self-regulation. Self-regulation refers to how people deal with stress and energy. With self-regulation skills, children are better able to manage their energy to stay calm, focus and able to engage.

Research reveals that when young children hear words that label emotions or help to describe feelings, it bolsters their ability to be attentive to other people’s emotions, show concern, be more helpful and have a wider emotional vocabulary themselves.

Imaginative play helps children learn about social interaction and friendships, and develops executive functions (reasoning, problem solving, comprehension, impulse control, creativity and perserverance).

Children shown a decline in peer conflict over time with secure attachment relationships with adults and learned social problem-solving skills including the ability to manage frustration. 

  • Secure and Calm

    Secure and calm describes the ability to take part in daily activities and approach new situations without being overwhelmed with worries, sadness or anxiety. To be secure and calm also means being able to cope with stress and pressure, and to bounce back from difficulties.
  • Gets Along with Others

    Getting along with others is the ability to form positive and healthy relationships with peers and adults. Children with better abilities to regulate their emotions and behaviours have more friends and experience more positive playtime with their peers.
  • Alert and Engaged

    Being alert and engaged is the ability to manage and direct one's own feelings, thoughts and emotions. In general, the ability to be 'present' and to exercise self-control.
  • Compassionate and Kind

    Being compassionate and kind is closely related to empathy. While empathy refers more generally to the ability to take the perspective of and to feel the emotions of another person, compassion goes one step further.
  • Solves Problems Peacefully

    Managing conflict effectively is about creating an atmosphere where violence and aggression are not likely. To resolve conflict means using empathy, problem-solving skills, understanding other points of view and coming up with ways to make things right in a fair way.