Discoverying the Stages of Play: A Guide to Making Playtime More Meaningful

If you are like me, your Pinterest page is filled with parenting tips and playtime ideas. Each time I pin something new, I commit to testing it out next time Jane and I have some down time. I’ve imagined making egg carton catepillars and glow in the dark glitter-filled ball jars, paper plate watermelons and do it yourself play dough.

Crafting our family spider at St. George's Halloween Party
Crafting our family spider at St. George’s Halloween Party

Again, if you are like me, you have done none of these things. But why? I find that our weekends are often filled with activities that keep Mark, Jane and me fully occupied. Whether it is a birthday party or an event around town or just a walk to the swings at the park, we find ourselves with very little down time on the weekends. With weeknight downtime sandwiched between dinner and bath time, I find it overwhelming to imagine pulling out the materials to make one of these projects. Thus, our hands on play time with Jane is often spent in our family room making use of her toys and books.

Lately, I have found myself feeling conflicted during our weeknight playtime with Jane. As Jane has gotten older (she has just turned two), she has demonstrated a desire for more automous play. This change has left me feeling both guilty and rejected all at once. As a working mom, I pledged to myself that I would always try my best to make my time with Jane as meaningful as possible. As an infant and early toddler, that came to mean holding her while we played with her toys, read her books, or changed her dolls. I felt that I had to be on the floor with her or attached to her for our time together to be well spent. As she has grown more independent, she has started pushing away when I pull her in close and choosing to read books to herself rather than have me read them to her. Recently, I asked her if I could help her with her puzzle, and she looked up me and very simply stated, “No, Mommy.” And it crushed me.

I know that her striving to be independent is both normal and healthy, but it doesn’t make it easy for me as her mom. It sounds odd to think about learning how to PLAY with your child, but I felt like I needed a class to teach me how to interact so that she gets from me what she needs to feel loved and supported. It just so happened Jane’s pre-school, St. George’s Episcopal, was hosting a parenting session on Challenging One and Two Year Olds. It could not have been a more perfect topic and came at the most perfect time. During the 45 minute small group session, the pre-school director and two pre-school teachers described the many stages of play that are a part of a child’s early development. It was such incredible information that I found myself sharing it with all of my friends with toddlers. So, I thought, why not share with all of you? I hope that it provides you a sense of confidence in how to make play time with your child special and fun and also provide you some assurance that just because they don’t need (or in my case want) you to physically interact with them during their play, you can still have play an important role in it.

The Six Stages of Toddler Play playtime with child

Unoccupied Play

Child’s Behavior: Remember when your now toddler was once a teeny little baby who loved to look around at everything their eyes were seeing for the first time – they weren’t playing but were observing.

Parent’s Interaction: Describe to the baby what they are seeing. Introduce objects with varying textures for them to explore – a silk scarf, a cotton ball, an orange.

Solitary Play

Child’s Behavior: Your child plays alone, unaware of and uninterested in what others around them are up to.

Parent’s Interaction: You can provide your child with several choices of materials and narrate what they choose. You might put the silk scarf, cotton ball and orange in front of them and say, “You picked the cotton ball. It is fluffy and white. It looks a lot like the clouds up in the sky. We can use this to pat you dry.”

Onlooker Play

Child’s Behavior: You take your one year old to the birthday party of a four year old neighbor. He or she stands by and watches exuberantly as the big kids play catch. Your child does not join in the play but is engaged.

Parent’s Interaction: You can narrate the play of your child’s friends to develop their awareness of others. “Watch the big kids play catch. Do you see how Jimmy throws the ball up in the air?” You can use this narration to teach your child about taking turns and sharing. “Jane, did you see how Jimmy threw the ball to Nick? Then, Nick threw the ball to Sarah. Isn’t it fun that they each got a turn? Would you like to take turns throwing the ball with me?”

Parallel Play

Child’s Behavior: Your child will play close by but separately from their friends. They may observe a friend’s behavior and mimic it. It is the start of more complex play.

Parent’s Interaction: During this stage of play, you can narrate their play in a way that encourages them to use and improve their developing language skills. ask them to tell you about what they are doing, “I see you are working hard on that project. What are you building?” Or, “You are really making big waves in the bathtub with your splashing.  Can you say splash, splash, splash?” If he or she is with a friend at a play date and is holding a ball, you can encourage them to interact by saying, “I see you have a ball.  Can you roll the ball to Susan?”

Playing dress up all on her own.
Playing dress up all on her own.

Associative Play

Child’s Behavior: While not organized, your toddler begins to interact with others during play. For instance, your child may want to have a tea party and deliver a cup of piping hot pretend tea to you.

Parent’s Interaction: *This is the stage where we find Jane, so I can tell you that these suggestions made such a difference in how I play with Jane. She and I are both happier and fulfilled having discovered this new method of playing together.* As a parent it is best to step back and let your child lead the play. Rest assured that they will come to you when they want you included or need your help. If you want to encourage them during the play, you can ask questions that are open-ended and support or extend their play. “It looks like you are going to the store. What are you buying?” “Is there any way to build your tower higher?” “Maybe you can put all of the triangles in this basket and the circles in that basket!” If at a play date, you can encourage the children to interact in a more organized fashion by suggesting they have a tea party or a superhero trip to the park (outside).

Cooperative Play

Child’s Behavior: Your child is now interested in both the people playing and the activity they are playing. Everything is organized and roles are assigned. It’s the start of team work!

Let your child take control of their play. You can add value by making statements or asking questions that demonstrate that you appreciate the work they have put into their play. “Wow! It looks like you built a building with your blocks. And you added animals to your building! What are you working on?” In fact, your child has made a zoo. “How would everyone know its a zoo? Do you think we should make a sign?” Give them access to letter stickers or scissors and glue if they are old enough to cut out letters on their own and help them make a sign for their zoo. You’ve just helped them transform their structure into a personalized zoo!  What a great team effort!!

And there you have it – the six stages of toddler play. I hope you found this insight as helpful as I did. I hope you find that just as your child transition from stage to stage, so can you. By doing so, you will always feel connected and supportive of their play.

What are you enjoying most about your toddler’s playtime? Did you struggle to keep up with their play transitions?


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here