Developmental scientists classify play into a number of different types, notably object play, physical play, and pretend play. Each of these can become forms of social play when they are shared with another person.
Each of these three general forms of play emerge in infancy, during the 12 – 24 month period.
The very first object play appears around a year. If you see your year-old child do something like pick up a phone, hold it to her ear and jabber, you are seeing the very beginnings of object play. Your child at this point is doing culturally appropriate things with objects. This is the first step into pretending. A few months later you may see her hold a block to her ear, pretending it is a phone. That kind of imaginative improvisation is the real start of pretend play. What is so significantly different in the two phone events is that in the first the child is using a real object, in the second she substituting a block for a phone. This marks a major breakthrough, for the block symbolizes a phone. Symbolic thinking of various sorts marks a distinction between infancy and early childhood.
Parents naturally initiate social play with their infants through simple activities like nursery routines or sharing toys. These interactions involve turn-taking and jointly paying attention to objects. While that may seem simple, these kinds of exchanges are very important for supporting the development of both communication and play. They scaffold play abilities by encouraging interactions that young children would not be able to come up with, nor sustain, on their own. Play of this sort with parents sets the stage for children’s ability to successfully play with peers.
Physical play involves discovering, trying out, and practicing all sorts of ways to move, manipulate things and use one’s arms, legs, hands, feet, head and torso.
Patterns of Social Play
If you observe young children you’ll notice that the characteristics of a toddler’s play are clearly different from those of a 4-year-old, in ways that clearly go beyond physical skill and language. In 1933, developmental psychologist Marjorie Parten carried out the first systematic study of how young children’s social play develops. She identified 4 levels of such play in young children. Subsequent research, even 80 years later, generally supports Parten’s pioneering work. Outside of parent-directed or adult-directed play, children typically progress through the these four patterns of social play.
1. Solitary Play refers to early forms of self-initiated play, in which the child plays alone with toys or objects. Small children sitting and looking at a book, or experimenting making sounds with pots and pans or pressing buttons on a toy are engaged in solitary play. They are alone and engrossed for a little while in their activity. (begins around 1 ½ – 2 years).
2. Parallel Play consists of similar but separate play in a closely shared space with another child. As the name suggests, the children are not truly interacting, but they are aware of what the other is doing and their activities sometimes resemble each others. If you see two small children in the sandbox together, each playing with shovels or dump trucks and perhaps noticing what the other does, perhaps even copying one another, but not sharing items or collaborating to make a game together, you are seeing parallel play. (begins around 2 years)
3. Associative play is also largely separate play, but children now pay attention to others, share play objects, or talk together a bit. (emerges around 3 years)
4 Cooperative Play marks a transition to real collaboration, in which a common goal or scenario is shared with a play partner and children interact cooperatively to reach the mutually understood objective. They often elaborate and embellish as they play, sometimes transforming from one kind of scenario into another. The important thing is that two or more children are working together to create and maintain the play activity. (frequently appears by 4 years)
Parten, M. (1933). Social play among preschool children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 28 (2): 136–147.