Play in Stages: Valuing All Types of Play in the Twos

By Colin Johnson, Head Teacher 

As important as the things children learn through their play—skills like language or problem-solving—is what children learn about play itself. With practice, they engage more deeply in their exploration of the world, try different ideas and strategies, and gain what are known as “play skills.” In the Monday, Wednesday, Friday AM Twos, teachers have witnessed children playing in a variety of ways and in ever-evolving styles. These styles can also be viewed as stages of play, specifically six stages first outlined in 1929 by sociologist Mildred Parten, who was a researcher at the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development.  
The first stage, “unoccupied play,” relates to a child who is not actively playing but observing. In the Twos class, children often engage in unoccupied play as they take in the environment or witness peers’ activity. 
The second, “solitary play,” occurs when a child independently focuses on their own activity with little acknowledgment of others. Parents may see this at home, where peers are absent, but it is common at Bing, too. Solitary play can help young children focus on material parts of the world, such as one boy did at the sand table one day. He repeatedly lifted handfuls of sand to eye level, only to release the load and marvel as it blew in the wind and glimmered in the sun.
The third stage, described as “onlooker play,” comprises peer-oriented but inactive behavior, such as observation of or discussions about others’ play. For instance, one child caught sight of others pretending to be scary dinosaurs outside. Though he didn’t join, he watched and conversed with a teacher about the game each time a dinosaur roar came across the grass. Then he walked away. Two days later, however, when the boy returned to school, he approached one of those other dinosaurs, growled with raised arms, and said “Dinosaur!” The social game commenced again, as the boy’s onlooker play taught him just the right strategy to join the group later.
Onlooker play: One child sees new opportunities with materials by observing another.
The next stages involve activity with others. In “parallel play,” Parten’s fourth stage, children engage in independent work that is physically close to peers and with the same materials. This is distinct from the fifth stage, “associative play,” when a child shows attachment to other players but still little coordination of themes or rules. The Twos is full of associative players. Early in the year, for example, two children pushed dump trucks around the classroom. They ran along unique paths, but also paused every minute to look back, meet eyes, laugh heartily and move on. A familiar cue such as a growl, a tag or a laugh is enough to attract a few peers to run, climb or slide in swirling groups.  
Children "cook" alongside each other in parallel play in the sand area.
Finally, “cooperative play” occurs when children coordinate their activity, often around a shared goal, theme or set of rules. It requires a suite of skills including perspective-taking, conversational abilities and planning that can be outside the range of typical toddler development. Still, in class, teachers saw cooperation as two children built a single stack of cardboard boxes, while others negotiated a game of “tag” on the grass. 
Cooperative play: Children take on different roles as they collaborate to build one very tall tower.
This final stage can easily be seen as a goal for children in their experience at Bing, and it often is. Teachers work hard to facilitate such complex interaction. However, teachers also value the other stages. In fact, there is some danger in representing play as a series of stages in the first place. For one thing, it suggests a linear track from one to the next, in which children move only forward, like climbing stairs. For another, it implies that any stage is somehow inferior to or simpler than what follows. To make either of these assumptions would be to underestimate the fluidity of children’s development through the play stages and to undermine the utility and complexity of each stage. 
Instead, adults can think of play stages as an ever-increasing repertoire of strategies. In that way, it is analogous to language: Humans first learn to speak in one-word utterances, but over time they reach new stages, like combining words, and then clauses, to form complex sentences. They grow capable of speaking in paragraphs, but they don’t always. Sometimes a “simpler” phrase, even a single word, is best for the situation at hand. Likewise, each stage of play has its value for a given situation, based on a child’s motivation, intentions, feelings and competencies. 
In the Twos class, teachers have seen children develop through these stages, but also thrive in each one. One child, for instance, worked hard on a block structure: She built a symmetrical design and challenged herself to make it taller. But with the addition of height, it toppled over (and over and over). She tried to rebuild the same structure nine times. It was clear that she had a specific goal and was determined to reach it. Soon, a peer approached and showed interest, helping her add blocks to her structure. She showed him which blocks she preferred, a clear sign that she had the skills to build cooperatively. Still, her face seemed sad, so a teacher checked in: “You were working really hard on that building by yourself. Do you want help, or do you want to try to do it by yourself?” “By myself,” she replied, so the teacher helped the peer work elsewhere. Glancing back, the girl beamed with pride as she took on the challenge she had created for herself in solitary play. This young child was capable of cooperative play. 
However, her goal was not simply to build the tower, but to build it on her own, and to experience the pride of completing the challenge. In this case, solitary play was called for—and though it was arguably less complex, it was unquestionably more powerful.