Stages of Play

ImagePennies in Playdough to improve fine motor skills 


Since I pulled my special needs son out of school, I’ve been researching how to give him what he needs at home. My son is mentally age 2, so I cannot expect him to do kindergarten work yet. I am starting him with Kindergarten, though, alongside his sister, then we’ll take it at his pace after his sister finishes kindergarten. If this means my son has to repeat kindergarten, that is okay. I will use different kindergarten curriculum so he isn’t bored. I think it will be good for him to be left behind in the “child’s garden” until he’s ready to move onto academically rigorous work. After all, kindergarten is literally the german words for “children’s garden”.


I have been researching the origin of kindergarten and I discovered that Friedrich Frobel started the movement as a transition from home to school. He named it children’s garden because he believed children are to be nourished like plants in a garden. He believed no educational activities should be part of kindergarten, only playing, experiences, social interaction, etc. That kindergarten is a place to develop playing skills.


That is what launched me into my current campaign for my son’s well being. “Playing skills”? What’s that? There are skills? What? I have an AA in developmental childhood and University of Maine did not teach us ANYTHING about the stages of play. Oh, yes, I learned about the purpose of play, the roles of adults in children’s play, etc. In my own independent research, I learned of Barnes, Lowe, Nicolich, Parten, and Wehman. I am somewhat angry that University of Maine did not teach us about this, yet gave us our degrees. Anyways, back to the point. I have learned so much and I want to share with you what I learned.


There are stages of play.


Unoccupied play; when the child is not playing but simply observing by remaining off to the side.
Exploratory play; when the child focuses on an activity, such as grasping, squeezing, mouthing toys, throwing, etc, but being uninterested in what others are doing.

Independent play; when the child learns navigate her environment as on playground equipment, manipulating toys together (puzzles, blocks, books, etc).

Parallel Play; when the child imitates other children at play, but stays separate. Not interested in interaction with other children, but interested in interacting with other children for the sake of the activity, such as coloring next to each other, swinging next to each other.

Associative play; when the child is interested in contact with peers, but not in coordinated play, for example, checking out what the other child has, but not sticking around to do the activity with the child. Example: throwing ball, but not sticking around to play catch.

Cooperative play; when the child is interested in doing an activity with a peer, for example, pulling a peer in a wagon, playing a true game of catch.

Symbolic play; when the child is cooperating with other peers to set up elaborate activities such as dress up and putting on a play, playing make believe with dolls, etc.


My daughter is at the associative play stage, which is only a year behind her actual age. This is a relief to have figured out. However, my son is still at the exploratory play stage. A child needs to get through all six stages of play to be successful in academics. Now I have a path marked out to take. Before, just knowing my son is developmentally/cognitively age 2 was daunting. How do I catch him up? But these stages of play encourages me. Now I have a map. I need to get him to master all the stages of play before I can realistically expect him to succeed in academics.


Play intervention will motivate my son to cooperate. If he is to succeed in school, he must learn to cooperate. Play will give him that motivation to want to be a cooperative little boy. It will also give him an experience to look for with everyone he’s around. Repetition is excellent, for example, popping bubbles and play will regulate his sensory system. I just pray that God inspires me with the perfect play activities to go with each unit we are doing this year.


Did you know about these stages? Has your kindergartener already passed all these stages?



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