Play, Where Learning Begins

Play (def.): the spontaneous activity of a child (

As an education major in college, I remember finding an entire section in a book on play and thinking, “How much is there to actually write that much on the subject of play!” As a teacher I soon learned there was more to it than I ever realized, and as a parent I have again realized there is WAY MORE to the subject than just a simple four letter word.  I am fascinated as I watch my children play. I love to watch as their imagination can turn ordinary objects into whatever their amazing little brains can dream up.  Being a parent is another opportunity to play all over again! :) 

The 6 Stages of Play:

This list will help you realize where your child is in their play. I found this helpful in understanding why my first son always seemed to stand and watch others at the park and not just jump right in; I realized he was “playing” in onlooker play. It may also help you answer some of the questions you have about your child’s interactions with other children. 

1. Unoccupied play: the child is relatively stationary and appears to be performing random movements with no apparent purpose. A relatively infrequent style of play.


2. Solitary play: the child is completely engrossed in playing and does not seem to notice other children. Most often seen in children between 2 and 3 years-old.

3. Onlooker play: child takes an interest in other children’s play but does not join in. May ask questions or just talk to other children, but the main activity is simply to watch.

4. Parallel play: the child mimics other children’s play but doesn’t actively engage with them. For example they may use the same toy.

5. Associative play: now more interested in each other than the toys they are using. This is the first category that involves strong social interaction between the children while they play.

6. Cooperative play: some organization enters children’s play, for example the playing has some goal and children often adopt roles and act as a group.


7 Types of Play (as described by the National Board of Play):

This list has been so helpful to me as a mother in being intentional about the activities I do with my children. Most parents seek to have well-rounded children in all areas and this list can serve as a reminder to us that there are many different levels on which we need to engage our child!

1. Attunement, which establishes a connection, such as between newborn and mother.

2. Body, in which an infant explores the ways in which his or her body works and interacts with the world, such as making funny sounds or discovering what happens in a fall.  (*Personally, this is where I believe most fine motor skill activities and sensory activities fit nicely.)

3. Object, such as playing with toys, banging pots and pans, handling physical things in ways that use curiosity.

4. Social, play which involves others in activities such as tumbling, making faces, and building connections with another child or group of children.

5. Imaginative (also called “pretend” or “fantasy”), in which a child invents scenarios from his or her imagination and acts within them as a form of play, such as princess or pirate play.

6. Narrative (or storytelling), the play of learning and language that develops intellect, such as a parent reading aloud to a child, or a child retelling the story in his or her own words.

7. Transformative (or integrative), by which one plays with imagination to transcend what is known in the current state, to create a higher state. For example, a person might experiment to find a new way to use a musical instrument, thereby taking that form of music to a higher plane; or, as Einstein was known to do, a person might wonder about things which are not yet known and play with unproven ideas as a bridge to the discovery of new knowledge.

types of play taken from:(

8. Outdoor Play (Can I add another category to their list? Sure.), this play includes a wide range of gross motor skills and learning how the world around them works. Outdoor play is an opportunity to plant in a garden, explore a playground, ride a tricycle, splash in the sprinkler, play a sport, and so much more.

Now, grab your child and GO PLAY! :)



  1. Yesterday, I was able to watch my daughter actually really play with one of her little friends for the first time. It was so neat to watch!

  2. If your child does one type of play more than any others (such as onlooker play) should you encourage him to do other types of play or just leave him to what he is comfortable with and allow him to explore other play on his own?
    Yikes! Being a mom is filled with some many uncertainties…..

    • @Vancouver Movers- There are a difference between stages of play and types of play. The Stages of Play (ex. onlooker) are more for you to take note of where your child is at in their stage of play and watch to see that they are developing into the different stages over time. However, the types of play is where you as a parent can encourage your child to participate in new types of play; even ones that might seem a little uncomfortable at first. This will help your child to more well-rounded in social and physical aspects of play. You are so right, there are so many uncertainties as a parent; I’m so glad I don’t have to do it alone (as any knowledge or wisdom I have comes from the Lord)!

  3. What a fun post!! Thanks for sharing it on Loving Our Children Tuesdays.

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