The 6 Different Ways Kids Play

The 6 Different Ways Kids Play

Image created by Amanda Morin

Playing with your child is a crucial way to help her learn. Kids develop a number of important skills through play, all of which play an important role in learning. As your child plays she is learning how to refine her fine and gross motor skills, improve her social skills, regulate and express her emotions and master new cognitive skills.

In the same way that children of different ages learn in different ways, there are different ways that kids play, too. Knowing what stage or type of play your child is ready for can make it easier to find ways to help her learn.

There are six main types of play. In order, they are as follows (click on each link to learn more about what each type of play looks like and how to encourage learning during each stage):

Unoccupied Play| Solitary Play | Onlooker Play| Parallel Play | Associative Play| Cooperative Play

Learning Through Unoccupied Play

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What is Unoccupied Play?

Unoccupied play isn't a very typical way of playing beyond infancy, but is sometimes seen in children with developmental disabilities. During unoccupied play, a child doesn't seem very interested in toys or exploring her surroundings.

Instead, a child engaged in this type of play tends to stay in one place and often makes seemingly random movements or gestures. In infants and young toddlers, these movements are an attempt to interact with and learn about the environment. (In older children with developmental or neurological issues, this same behavior is sometimes referred to as "stimming ").

How to Teach or Engage During Unoccupied Play:

It’s difficult to engage with your child during this stage of play, but you can make sure her environment is stimulating enough to help her brain develop. Play music in the background, make sure there are many different colors and patterns for her to see and provide toys with a lot of texture for her to explore.

Watch a Video: Stimulating Brain Growth and Development in Infants

Solitary Play | Onlooker Play | Parallel Play | Associative Play| Cooperative Play

Learning Through Solitary Play

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What is Solitary Play?

Solitary play is pretty much what it sounds like--your child is playing alone and isn’t all that interested in playing with anybody else. This stage of play is typically seen in toddlers, but just because your child is playing by herself doesn’t mean you can’t help her learn.

At this point, your child is probably in the stage of functional play, that is, using objects for exactly what they are and not pretending they are something different.

How to Teach or Engage During Solitary Play:

Instead of trying to insert yourself into your child’s play to teach her, insert opportunities to learn into into her toy box instead.

  • Create junk boxes with various types of toys and miscellaneous objects--making sure to avoid items that are a choking hazard --to help your child learn to count and how to sort and pattern items.
  • Provide her with chunky puzzles with large pieces she can manipulate to improve fine motor and sequencing skills.
  • Give her some old clothes and shoes to play dress-up and encourage imaginative play.

Unoccupied Play | Onlooker Play | Parallel Play | Associative Play| Cooperative Play

Learning Through Onlooker Play

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What is Onlooker Play?

Also known as "spectator play." at this stage of play your child is interested in how other people are playing, but isn't ready to join in quite yet.

She may ask questions about what other people are doing or make suggestions as to how they should be playing, but she’s not an active participant, she’s mainly an observer.

How to Teach or Engage During Solitary Play:

This stage of play often runs concurrently with solitary play, a type of play which persists and gets refined throughout childhood. One of the differences is that your child is moving from functional play to constructive play , a time in which toys are not only used for their given functions, but also to make "new" toys as well.

Even if your child isn't participating during onlooker play, you can take advantage of her interest by letting her experience play and learning through you.

  • Bring her in the kitchen with you while you cook, lay out some extra kitchen tools or provide her with a play kitchen. Then talk through what you are doing, or make up silly stories about what you’re planning to cook for dinner.
  • Read lots of stories with her, but don’t just read. Act out the stories, adding in silly voices, sound effects and props like a "word catcher."
  • Play with her older siblings or cousins while she’s around, so she can see how other kids interact with each other.

Unoccupied Play | Solitary Play | Parallel Play | Associative Play| Cooperative Play

Learning Through Parallel Play

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What is Parallel Play?

When your child enters the parallel play stage of play, it’s an exciting time. It means she is gravitating toward other children and becoming more interested in making friends and playing with them.

She’s not quite ready to engage in collaborative play , in which she is sharing and taking turns, but she is using the same toys as other children, sitting near them and imitating what they are doing.

How to Teach or Engage During Parallel Play:

This is a prime opportunity to take advantage of the teachable moments that arise while you and your child are playing. While your child isn't ready to play board games with you or participate in other turn-taking learning experiences, it’s a great time to start doing hands-on activities that teach through doing. For example:

  • Make a newspaper pirate hat. Your child can imitate what you are doing and make her own. It will teach her sequencing skills, improve her fine motor skills and get her ready to go on treasure hunts!
  • Create sensory play experiences, like scratch and sniff paint, using playdough or color mixing with an eyedropper. She can watch what you’re doing, mimic it and benefit from the sensory play experience at the same time.

Unoccupied Play | Solitary Play | Onlooker Play | Associative Play| Cooperative Play

Learning Through Associative Play

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What is Associative Play?

Associative play looks somewhat similar to parallel play, but there are some differences. Associative play begins around the time your child is working on her kindergarten readiness skills , one of which is learning how to be around other kids in a socially appropriate manner.

Your child might still be more interested in doing her own thing, but during this stage of play, she’s usually doing it in a group of kids who are also interested in doing their own thing. The difference is that all their "things" are typically related.

For instance, your child might be with a group of kids on a playground and a few are climbing, a few are on the slide and some are swinging. They’re together, doing similar activities.

How to Teach or Engage During Associative Play:

At this point in your child’s play, the best way you can help her learn is to help her become a more self-directed learner (and “player”). Provide her with the chance to be around other kids. Consider:

  • Bringing her to the park or playground.
  • Going to the local children’s museum.
  • Accepting birthday party invitations.

Unoccupied Play | Solitary Play | Onlooker Play | Parallel Play | Cooperative Play

Learning Through Cooperative Play

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What is Cooperative Play?

Cooperative play often coincides with your child going to school and being around many other children. She begins to play with other children in more structured ways, often working together toward a certain goal or outcome.

How to Teach or Engage During Cooperative Play:

Cooperative play is a type of play that parents both rejoice in and feel sad about--it may seem like your child is growing up and doesn't need you anymore. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Being ready to play organized games and work together opens up the door to a number of ways to teach your child. You can:

  • Gather a bunch of her friends and play circle games or word games, like the Fortunately-Unfortunately storytelling game.
  • Investigate the world around you by creating a nature journal together or doing some basic science experiments that can be used in play, such as making your own stethoscope.
  • Play board games, card games and even educational video games together.

Unoccupied Play | Solitary Play | Onlooker Play | Parallel Play | Associative Play