Children go through different stages of play as they grow and develop. Very young infants only have the ability to attend to one object at a time. Once an object is out of their sight, it is quickly forgotten. Infants play by themselves because they are so busy exploring and discovering their new world. Every new object or situation that is introduced is a new learning experience for the newborn. This very first stage of play is called “Solitary Play” or independent play. They are fully engaged in gathering information and storing it for further use. This stage of play lasts until some where around nine months. This is a very self centered time for the developing infant.
The second stage of play begins to ripen in slightly older children usually by the time a child is two years of age. “Parallel Play” is typical of this age child. This kind of play involves two or more children in the same room. They are interested in the same toys and both see the toy as belonging to them. Hence they maybe in the same area and play with similar toys, but they do not play together. They are playing along side each other simply because they are in the same area.
When children extend their knowledge and play experiences they move into “Associative Play”. In this stage, three and four year old children begin playing together but it is a loosely organized fashion. The more mature child soon emerges as the leader or organizer in this stage of play. They see themselves as capable and able to tell others what to do, the younger child seldom questions this authority that the more mature child has cultivated.
Finally the child expands into “Cooperative Play” somewhere between the ages of four or five. Cooperative play takes place between two or more children as they grow and develop socially and emotionally. In cooperative play, children exchange ideas about the game or the toy they are playing with at that moment in time. Rules tend to still be very loosely constructed, but children know who is playing which role in their game. Play may last only a few minutes or it may stretch out for longer periods of time. Gradually they learn to respect the property rights of others. This is a clue that they are gaining social skills; at this same time they begin to understand that they need permission to play with certain materials and certain people. They are also more willing to share their toys for the sake of the game. Communication about the play is the critical point of cooperative play.
It is important to note that children differ widely according to birth order within their own families. Boys and girls develop in different areas at different stages of their life, so there is never complete adherence to any of these exact ages. Not all children move through the stages at the same rate, because children who have more life experiences tend to emerge as leaders or organizers at younger ages. Confidence, shyness, and other personality traits factor into these stages of play.