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Stages of Play: A Teacher’s Guide to Play Theories

Learn more about the stages of play to assist your child in developing essential skills.

Stages of Play: A Teacher’s Guide to Play Theories

Stages of Play: A Teacher’s Guide to Play Theories

For children, playing is a fun, leisurely activity in pursuit of their interests. It’s also a crucial part of their development that helps them build essential capabilities they’ll use for the rest of their lives. 

Through play, children develop social and communication skills, which will help them interact better with other children and adults as they grow up. They also build literacy and arithmetic skills required at all formal education levels. 

Therefore, a teacher must know about the various stages of play. This is key in guiding the children to develop their skills and abilities by playing.

Two preschool children playing together in waterSource

Stages of play explained

While this article explores these stages, it’s important to note that this isn’t a one-fits-all strategy. Children are unique, and as such, they respond differently to different approaches to play. These stages of play denote the different ways children engage in exploration and construction of knowledge based on their ages. 

For instance, a three-month old infant may only be interested in throwing their arms and feet around. In contrast, four-year-olds can coordinate their limbs to perform more complex activities, such as molding clay or kicking a ball in the intended direction. 

This illustrates how children develop more complex skills that enable them to communicate, interact, and build their physical and mental strengths as they grow older.

Why stages of play are important

Play-based learning is an early education approach based on the notion that children learn best through play. This approach emphasizes hands-on and experiential learning and enables children to learn at their own self-directed pace. This means children initiate play activities, and teachers support their ideas.

Stages of play are crucial for children’s growth and development. Let’s dive into why they’re important.

1. Help track developmental milestones

All children are unique and develop at their own pace. But this doesn't counter the fact that child development occurs in stages. So, children are expected to engage in specific play activities as infants, toddlers, or preschoolers. 

While some children achieve these milestones effortlessly, others struggle and may need professional attention. The good news is that educators and parents can track children’s developmental milestones by observing stages of play.

2. Support skills development 

Play is essential for children’s growth since it supports skills development. Children learn crucial physical, social-emotional, cognitive, and language skills through play. Importantly, developing these skills doesn’t happen overnight but is spread from one stage of play to another.

3. Aid the development of early childhood education strategies

Lastly, stages of play provide a framework for developing early childhood education strategies. Early childhood educators can use observation data to create holistic development plans for children.

This is an excellent opportunity for educators to develop an inclusive curriculum depending on children’s unique strengths and weaknesses.

Theories of stages of play

The stages of play are anchored on three theories that show the correlation between a child’s environment and how they acquire knowledge as they grow. These theories will also show how children advance in play from simple body movements to more complex activities. 

1. Bronfenbrenner's ecological systems theory 

This theory by psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner suggests that the environment in which a child exists determines to a great extent, how the child develops. 

Bronfenbrenner states that children are surrounded by five layers of structures, each impacting the child with varying intensity. They are microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, macrosystem, and chronosystem.


This is the primary level of impact as it includes people and things that have close contact with the child, such as parents or caregivers, teachers, and playmates. 

In this layer, the child’s behaviors and world views are greatly influenced by the people they spend most of their time with. The child can equally influence those that exist in this layer of their environment. 


At this level, child development is influenced by interactions between the child’s microsystems. 

For example, when the child’s parents meet with the teacher and agree that the child should be enrolled in swimming classes, this will influence the child’s activities and schedules. 


Players in the exosystem aren’t in direct contact with the child but still affect their lives. They include the media and the neighborhood in which the child lives. 

For example, if a parent or guardian is laid off from their job, this might affect the child’s education, like no longer attending after-school programs if the family can’t afford it.


The macrosystem entails the larger societal and cultural situation that the child is growing up in, which can include socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or geographic location. These situations will determine their growth and worldview. 

For example, a child raised in a wealthy city will experience a different development from a child born in an impoverished country. 


This final layer has to do with the milestones and transitions that children make as they grow. Some of these examples include normal life changes like starting school but can also include uncommon events like moving to a new city. 

2. Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory 

Psychologist Jean Piaget argued that intelligence in children varies as they grow older. His theory posits that children grow in four stages and that their development encompasses acquiring knowledge and constructing a mental picture of how the world works. The four stages are:


In this stage which lasts from birth to two years of age, a child learns using the five senses of the body: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. 

Within that age bracket, children can develop cognitive abilities such as understanding that objects exist even when they cannot touch or see them. They know, for instance, that when they look at a tree and look away, the tree won’t disappear but will stay in its position. 

They also imitate what they see people around them doing and have self-recognition. If they see an older sibling walking in a certain style, they’ll try to walk in the same fashion later.


From the age of two to seven, a child begins to have an imagination based on how the world looks to them, not how the world is,  and does not demonstrate problem solving skills yet. They can also appreciate the symbolism of things, for example, a word or an object may represent something more than itself in some instances. 

At this stage, children also display animism, in which they think non-living objects, like toys, can think and feel like a person.

Concrete operational 

Once the child enters the seven to 11 age group, they can apply logic when solving problems. They begin to have a much less egocentric view of the world and realize others see the world in a different way than they do. 

In addition, children at this stage begin to understand conservation, which means they understand that changing the form of a substance or object does not change the object itself.

Formal operational 

At the age of 12 and beyond, they can now understand the hypothetical scenarios they’re presented with and come up with solutions in the hypothetical realm. If you ask them what they would do if they were president, they’ll suggest several courses of action.

3. Parten’s social behavior theory 

American sociologist, Mildred Parten’s social behavior theory stated that play is important for children and outlined six types of play that children progress through: 

Unoccupied play

Infants experience this type of play. At this point, they only make movements with their bodies and are intrigued by everything around them because it’s new to them. 

There is no purpose, just instinct, as the infants begin interacting with their surroundings and becoming aware of themselves. 

Solitary play

Toddlers around age two to three play with themselves and are immersed in their own games. They aren’t interested in playing with other children yet and are fascinated by toys and stuffed animals. 

Onlooker play

Around age three, children may become more interested in other children's games. However, they are content with simply watching and asking a question or two about the game, instead of joining in.

Parallel play

Children in this type of play will be near each other but each will play their own game or imitate the actions of the other, without interacting together. 

Associative play

This is when children play together but with different goals. This typically happens between three and five years.  Even when playing different games, the children will interact as opposed to the parallel stage where each child is playing on their own. 

Cooperative play

From age five onwards, children begin to play the same game together. This includes sharing toys and cooperating to achieve common goals. 

How to support children through stages of play

Educators play a significant role in supporting children through the stages of play. Your primary effort as an educator should manifest through how you provide the necessary resources to aid playtime. Below, we look at ways to support children through stages of play.

  • Provide play materials: Toys are children’s primary play materials. So, providing enough toys for your children goes a long way.
  • Introduce various play activities: Children love different play activities depending on stages of development. It helps to introduce appropriate play activities based on where your children are in their developmental milestones.
  • Pick safe playgrounds: The best playgrounds for children should be safe to facilitate uninterrupted play. You can choose an indoor or outdoor playground depending on your goals. 
  • Be patient: Children are unique and develop at their pace. So it helps to be patient with your children when promoting the stages of play activities.
  • Acknowledge their efforts: Playing side-by-side with children is fun. It’s also an excellent way to acknowledge their efforts and appreciate their progress.

Bottom line

Many factors influence child development, but play is particularly important. As a teacher, it’s important to understand the different types of play and theories around child development. This knowledge will help you in devising strategies that help children learn effectively and grow to be creative adults who can solve life's various challenges.

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