Six types of play

Posted on 1 March 2020

Playtime for under-fives isn’t just about fun. The six different types of play help your child learn essential skills in their early years.

Encouraging your little one to play doesn’t need to be limited to parks, playing fields and kindergarten playgrounds. It can happen in the car, during bath-time and even during meals.

“Play is a dynamic action that stimulates healthy development,” says Dr Nasreen Cariem, an occupational therapist at Mediclinic Milnerton. “It can take a variety of forms and changes with your child’s development over the years.”

“Problem-solving, creativity, and willingness to take risks are just a few of the important life skills your child will develop through play. In addition, children who use their imagination learn about their emotions, their interests and their surroundings,” says Dr Cariem.

In the 1920s, American psychologist Mildred Parten observed children between the ages of two and five years and categorised six types of play. In her research, she made the observation that play teaches children how to interact and engage with others.


Unoccupied play (birth – three months): This is when your baby is mainly stationary and appears to be performing random movements with no real purpose. However, this sets the stage for further play exploration.

Solitary play: This usually occurs when your child is between two and three years old. It means they are completely engrossed in playing alone and might not notice other children. During this type of play, they are learning how to keep themselves entertained and to be self-sufficient.

Onlooker play: Your child might show interest in other children’s activities but choose not to participate. Although they prefer to observe, they might ask a few questions about what they are doing. This is helping them develop their vocabulary.

Parallel play: From one years old, your child copies other children’s play, by using the same toys or making the same noises. They will play adjacent to others, but don’t actively engage with them or try to influence them.

Associative play: At around three years old, your little one becomes more interested in other children. This is the beginning of strong social interaction. They learn to ask to borrow toys, which increases their language and reasoning skills.

Co-operative play: Finally, at around five years old, children begin to work together and share goals during playtime. The activities become more organised with particular roles and expectations.


These categories are general guidelines, as each child is unique. However, as Dr Cariem notes, if you notice that your little one isn’t engaging in some or any of these activities, you might want to investigate why.


Further reading:

Why play matters

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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