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Associative Play: The First Stage of Social Interaction

During the associative play stage, preschoolers begin to interact with other children during playtime. Learn more about this transition phase and ways to support and encourage them through it.

Associative Play: The First Stage of Social Interaction

Associative Play: The First Stage of Social Interaction

Playtime is a vital aspect of children’s lives, and besides enhancing their creative thinking, it also aids their development and growth. Associative play is a key milestone in the social development of preschool aged children. This engaging form of play, where children start to interact with each other around a common activity without a set organization, is more than just fun. It's a building block for collaboration, communication, and understanding social cues.

Through associative play, children begin to discover the joy of shared experiences, paving the way for deeper connections and enhanced cognitive development. This article will explore associative play, its benefits to children, and how to encourage and support it. But first, let’s understand associative play and its role in a child’s life.

Two children seated next to each other playing with moulding claySource

What is associative play?

Associative play is when children begin learning how to interact with other children during playtime. In this type of play, children participate in the same activity and might exchange toys or a few words.

Associative play is the fifth out of the six stages of play, a theory developed by researcher Mildred Parten. Other stages of play include unoccupied play, solitary play, onlooker play, parallel play, and cooperative play. These stages enable parents and teachers to understand how children undergo different phases of play as they grow.

Associative play is the stage where children start showing interest in what other children are doing and include others in their play world. It marks the start of their social interaction, where they engage more with the children and adults around them. 

Children begin to develop social skills when engaging in mutual activity, even if they don’t have a common goal. The associative play stage commonly occurs around four and four and a half years old however, it can vary for each individual child.

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Understanding associative play helps you understand how to maximize children’s skills and learning potential. It’s also vital to understand all the stages of play and how they connect.

Stages of play that promote child development and growth

In addition to associative play, children undergo various other stages of play, namely:

Unoccupied play

Children usually experience the unoccupied play stage from birth to about three months old. In this phase, children are still orienting themselves to their environment. They are slowly learning to use their limbs and mastering motor skills. There’s neither social interaction nor concentration on a particular activity. During their play, you’ll notice that children lack a clear focus and don’t use any language.

Solitary play

Solitary play typically occurs for children between three months and two and a half years old. Children will play alone with little interest in toys far from their vicinity. However, solitary play is slightly focused compared to unoccupied play. 

During this time, children don’t have a lot of interest in other children or adults. Their play has no clear goals, but they tend to have an increased focus on their toys. In this stage, they’re exploring their environment.

Two children playing with blocksSource

Onlooker play

Onlooker play occurs around two and a half and three and a half years old. It’s the first time children show interest in other children’s play behaviors. You’ll notice them observing other children, but they won’t get involved. They’ll even sit close to them and listen in on their conversations, but they won’t interact with them during play.

Parallel play

Parallel play usually occurs around three and a half to four years old. Children begin playing close to each other but individually. They share resources and watch each other from afar but don’t share similar goals or play with each other.

Their discovery and exploration are often independent, although they observe and mimic each other. An example of parallel play in action is two children sharing paint and brushes, but each using their own canvas to paint.

Two children seated next to each other doing an art activitySource

Cooperative play

Cooperative play commonly occurs around four and a half years old. It comes after the associative play stage and fully integrates social group play. Children share games and play together to achieve common goals. They assign roles and responsibilities to each other.

At this stage, children achieve socialization. However, their social skills are still developing, and they’ll require your support and guidance to ensure they build positive social skills like compromising, turn-taking, and sharing.

Now that we’ve covered the other stages of play, let’s explore associative play in more detail.

What are the benefits of associative play?

Play-based learning is one popular approach to early learning because it supports children's skills development and prepares them for a future of learning. Watching children begin to interact in associative play is exciting for everyone. It’s a sight to behold watching your child reaching out to other people beyond their world as they learn valuable skills.

Some of the benefits of associative play include:

  • Encourages sharing: Associative play encourages preschoolers to share resources like swings, monkey bars, or slides. They’ll start laughing together or borrowing and lending toys to others. It also enables them to join group activities, even when they aren’t ready to put in their joint efforts.
  • Fosters language development: When children start interacting with their peers, they’ll begin verbalizing what they feel, which helps develop vocabulary. This also enables them to form simple sentences as they express themselves.
  • Improves their problem-solving skills: During associative play, children will want to demonstrate and practice the skills they learn as they become more active. They’ll start finding solutions if they face challenges, conflicts, or problems. You’ll see them interacting with other children, observing them, or doing things on their own. 
  • Boosts their physical health: Collaborating with other children in activities promotes their motor skills while strengthening their muscles and bone structure.
  • Stimulates brain development: Associative play also increases a child’s concentration, creativity, imagination, cognition, and thinking capacity. This is when they become more curious and start to explore. 
  • Teaches social-emotional skills: Associative play helps children understand how to get along with others, such as learning the importance of taking turns, working together, and respecting one another. 

Associative play is a crucial stage in children’s development, teaching them valuable skills as they learn about themselves and their place in the world.

Examples of activities for associative play

Associative play is not something that needs to be facilitated intentionally. A common setup could simply be an area with multiple options for children to play alone or engage with one another. 

Here are some associative play examples:

  • Sharing a common playground and play equipment like climbers, slides, and swings and taking turns without engaging in conversation
  • Riding tricycles or bicycles together without a coordinated plan
  • Playing with similar toys without communicating with one another
  • Dancing with others without getting in sync
  • Building towers from wooden blocks together without competing or interacting
  • Sharing water play and sand play
  • Working on art projects using shared materials or canvas
  • Running around together in the same outdoor area without competing
  • Eating meals as a group without interacting
  • Engaging in role play activities with other children

Learn more about activities that promote social-emotional, cognitive, and physical development with our free list of ideas!

Download a free list of activities across developmental domains!

Parallel play vs associative play

In associative play, you’ll see a significant shift in children. Instead of simply playing alongside other children, they’ll start interacting with them. It may not be at the point of working together on a common goal, but they’ll break through their isolation.

Parallel play, on the other hand, is a stage characterized by children playing side by side but not interacting with other children. Instead, they observe others and do things on their own most of the time. 

Associative play vs cooperative play

The associative play stage typically comes before cooperative play. When your child starts playing freely with others towards a unified goal, you know they’ve progressed from associative to cooperative play.

While associative play is often the first stage of children’s social interaction, cooperative play is the full transition to socializing. In cooperative play, children will contribute ideas, listen to and respect their friends’ opinions, and share their things willingly. This developmental milestone encourages children to work together toward a common goal. 

Although it’s considered the most complex stage of the six, cooperative play is a wonderful stage that teaches children new brain-boosting concepts and activities that help to further build their social skills.

Children participating in cooperative play gain many collaboration skills that help them cope well in different social settings, including school. Activities for cooperative play are well organized, with adequately distributed responsibilities and roles among the children.

How to encourage associative play in children

Children learn and develop through play. As in all their developmental phases, as they grow their playtime also changes. With the enormous benefits of this type of play, it’s vital to encourage and support associative play. 

There are plenty of ways to encourage associative play among children. They need to explore their surroundings freely with no restrictions.

Here’s how to encourage associative play:

  • Give them opportunities to mingle with other children of the same age. Ensure they have age-appropriate play opportunities.
  • Encourage the children to share whatever they have during communal activities like playing on a playground.
  • Organize play dates, a visit to the park, or accompany them during playgroups.
  • Try games that allow them to take turns.

Children seated playing together, one child putting a toy stethoscope on the other's backSource

Frequently asked questions about associative play 

What are the characteristics of associative play?

The notable characteristics of associative play include:

  • Children playing with each other but with no common goal in mind
  • Little or no communication with fellow children
  • Children trading toys and sometimes sharing toys by taking turns
  • Children taking an interest in what other children are doing or what they’re playing with but not directly engaging with them

At what age do children experience associative play?

Children show associative play signs when they’re about three years old. Their language skills are developed, allowing them to choose the activities they desire and who to play with. However, children are unique and reach developmental milestones at different times, so some children might be early to this stage while others may be late.

How does associative play support language development in children?

Associative play encourages language development because this is the stage where children start communicating with their peers. They’ll need to interact with others as they exchange and share their toys or express their willingness to take turns. Plus, they might become curious and ask others what they’re playing with.

Wrapping up

Associative play plays a major role in developing a child’s social skills. Taking them to places that will help them interact with other children and make friends is the best way to nurture their social skills. This is a crucial stage where children learn to adjust to a new environment, and the changes happening around them will aid in their transition to the next stage of play.

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