Stages of play

As children get older, the way they interact with other people during play will change. These changes are called “stages of play”.

There are 6 stages of play. They are:

  • unoccupied
  • playing alone
  • onlooker
  • parallel
  • associative
  • cooperative

Each stage is normal. Your child is not different and there is no need to worry if they're not interacting with other children.


This is when a baby moves for no reason, such as kicking their legs. This is the first sign of play.

You can encourage unoccupied play by letting your child move around. It also helps not to wrap them up while they are awake.

Playing alone

When children play alone, they will explore the world around them. They do this by touching and tasting things. They will also enjoy hearing their own voice.

You can encourage your child to explore by giving them a variety of safe and age appropriate toys.


This is when a child watches other children play, and doesn’t join in. This is the first step in learning to play with others.

Onlooker play is a normal and a healthy part of development.


Parallel play is when children play next to each other, but don’t interact. This is a normal part of the learning to play process.

This usually happens between 2 and 3 years old.

You should not force children to play together. This will come with time.


Associative play is when children play together, but have different ideas and goals. For example - talking to each other and playing with the same toys, but doing different things.

This usually happens between 3 and 5 years old.

You can encourage associative play by taking your child to a playgroup.


Cooperative play is when children start working together towards a common goal. For instance, building a block tower. This helps your child to develop social skills.

This usually happens between 4 and 6 years old.

Page last reviewed: 23 January 2019
Next review due: 23 January 2022