Introduction Link
Appendix A
Local Contacts and Services
Stages of Play     • Benefits of Play in Children’s Development

On Track - Section 4 in PDF

Importance of Play

Spontaneous play is natural and healthy for children. Children learn best through play. Through play all areas of a child’s development can be enhanced. Play positively supports children’s social/emotional, physical, cognitive, language, and literacy skills, is essential to a child’s overall healthy development (Ginsburg, 2007; Packer Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002) and enhances self-regulation. Daily physical and active play for children is recommended by the Canadian Paediatric Society (Grenier & Leduc, 2008), to foster optimal development. The right to play is also recognized for all children in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).  Hirsh-Pasek et al. (2009) states that “play offers a key way to support the learning of whole children in developmentally appropriate play” (p23). Play, therefore, is an important vehicle that promotes children’s school readiness.

Stages of Play

Since the 1800s, the play of children has been the focus of considerable study. One aspect of play, the various stages of play through which children progress, has been observed and recorded extensively. Mildred Parten (1932; 1933) categorized the stages of play in pre-school children.

Mildred Parten (1932; 1933)
In her famous study, Parten (1932) developed six categories of social participation among preschool children. Her play categories are still actively used by educators today. They include:
  1. Unoccupied behaviour - not engaged in any activity
  2. Solitary independent play - child playing alone, no other children within 1 meter (3 feet)
  3. Onlooker behaviour - child observing others play but not joining in
  4. Parallel play - child playing next to others without verbal interaction
  5. Associative play - verbal interaction, but few attempts to organize the play situation
  6. Co-operative or organized supplementary play - each child taking an active role to plan and structure the play situation while collaborating with each other.
Parten found that with increasing age, the children tended to participate in more social forms of play. Younger children tended to engage in more unoccupied behaviour, onlooker behaviour, and solitary play, while older preschoolers engaged in more cooperative play.

Sara Smilansky (1968)
Sara Smilansky is known for her four stages of play. These play stages are considered to reflect a child’s cognitive development. Smilansky’s four stages consisted of:
  1. Functional play (also called practice play)
  2. Constructive play – children create or assemble a structure or object
  3. Dramatic or symbolic play
  4. Games with rules
  • Play can also be classified into play behaviour that corresponds to some developmental domains, although there is always considerable overlap:
  • Locomotor play - physical
  • Social play - social/emotional
  • Pretend play - social/emotional
  • Object play - cognitive
  • Language play - language and literacy
    (Smith & Pellegrini, 2008)
  • It has been found that children engage in increasingly more complex stages of play as they get older. Rubin, Watson, and Jambor (1978) found:
  • Infants engage in solitary-functional play
  • Toddlers engage in parallel-functional play
  • Preschoolers engage in associative play, constructive play and dramatic play
  • Four and five year olds engage in cooperative-constructive play, socio-dramatic play and begin to play games with rules.
  • Kindergarten and school age children elaborate cooperative-constructive play, socio-dramatic play and games with rules.
  • There are times when individual children choose solitary play. A master lego builder, for example, may want the concentration allowed in solitary play. When day after day is spent in solitary play and play seems “stuck” adults should extend their observations to determine if:
  • The child is being isolated by peers
  • The child has some emerging interest and social skills
  • The child chooses to play alone
  • The child needs some assistance to move beyond the present form and level of play.
Functional play includes the investigation of the properties and functions of objects through sensory motor exploration. When we are introduced to a new medium like clay for the first time we all may pinch, poke and pull apart the clay in functional play. When children are “stuck” using functional play and do not move with time and experience from poking, pinching and pulling clay to rolling it and forming shapes and eventually creating objects then it may be time to intervene.

Benefits of Play in Children’s Development

As an essential part of childhood, studies have shown that play has a positive impact on children’s overall development. The positive benefits of play on a child’s social/emotional, physical, cognitive, language and literacy development have been well documented (Ginsburg, 2007; Pronin Fromberg, 2002; Roskos & Christie, 2000; Zigler, Singer, & Bishop-Josef, 2004).

  • What are some of the benefits of play for young children?
  • Play enhances children’s creativity and problem-solving (Smith & Simon, 1984).
  • Play contributes to the development of self-regulation and social skills such as turn-taking, collaboration and following rules, empathy, and motivation (Bodrova & Leong, 2007; Krafft & Berk, 1998).
  • Children, who engage in social and dramatic play, are better able to take others’ perspectives, and are viewed as more intellectually and socially competent by their teachers (Connolly & Doyle, 1984; Sawyer, 2001).
  • Outdoor play helps to promote children’s physical well-being, attention, conflict resolution, coordination, muscle development, and healthy weights (Clements & Jarrett, 2000; Council on Physical Education for Children, 2001; Fjortoft, 2001; National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education, 2002).
  • Adding literacy-related materials to dramatic play centres, increases reading and writing activities and use of more varied language (Bagley & Klass, 1997; Neuman & Roskos, 1997; Stone & Christie, 1996).
  • Children, who play out events in a story, have improved story comprehension and develop a stronger theory of mind, the understanding that others have different feelings, thoughts, views and beliefs (Pellegrini & Galda, 1980).
  • Positive links between children’s dramatic play and early reading achievement have been found (Pellegrini, 1980).