There are many benefits of play that contribute to a child’s healthy development. Jean Piaget said that a child’s ability to play cognitively changes during early childhood.

Stage 1: Practice or Functional Play (birth to two). Children play using senses and motor functions. They kick, grasp, run, etc. This continues throughout childhood.

Stage 2: Symbolic Play (two to six). Children begin to represent thought and objects not immediately present. This is the beginning of abstract thought. Constructive play when children use concrete objects to represent something else and move towards a goal such as completing a puzzle. Dramatic play occurs when children use language to create imaginary roles and situations. This is a great time to introduce dress up clothes.

Stage 3: Games with Rules (six and seven): Children can adhere to an external set of rules. Rules can be negotiated and agreed upon. This is a good time to introduce board games.

In 1932, Mildred Parten researched play from a social perspective.

Level 1: Onlooker behavior (more common in younger children). Children watch others to play because they are unsure what to do or because they are thinking about what they want to do.

Level 2: Solitary Play (typical for two to three, older children as well).  Children play alone without interacting with others.

Level 3: Parallel Play(two to three). Children play with shared materials and/or in close proximity to others.

Level 4: Group Play. Associative (three-and-half to four-and-a-half ). Children share space and/or materials but lack true cooperation. Cooperative (four to five) play involves sophisticated role playing and scenarios.


Parten, M. (1932).Social participation among preschool children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology , 28(3), 136-147. doi:10.1037/h0074524

Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York: International Universities Press.

Piaget, J. (1954). The construction of reality in the child. New York: Basic Books.