Creating Activities Based on the Theories of Stages of Play

Creating Activities Based on the Theories of Stages of Play

When you hear the word play, do you think of outdoor recess, toys, or downtime from “real” classroom learning? A common misconception is that play is simply a form of entertainment or a way to pass the time. It’s actually quite the opposite – for young children, play is absolutely essential for the mind and body!

Play is SO Much More than Fun & Games!

In this article, we’ll cover different types and benefits of play, and ways to promote cooperative play in the classroom. Whether you’re a new or experienced educator, having a strong foundational understanding (or a helpful refresher!) of the leading theories of stages of play will help you brainstorm new and engaging cooperative play activities and activities for cooperation for your young students to learn, grow and work together in the classroom. This will help build crucial skills they’ll need later to collaborate, cooperate and excel at school and in other typical social settings outside of the classroom, including sports, as they age up.

The Many Benefits of Play

For educators, understanding the theories of stages of play is crucial, because play has numerous and varied benefits for growing brains and bodies. At a high level, play can promote cognitive development, help develop executive brain functions, and improve academic achievement for growing tots.

More specifically, this includes crucial areas like memory, visual and spatial awareness, language, communication and social skills, attention span, and fine and gross motor skills. There’s more: emotional self-regulation, sequencing, inhibition, verbal reasoning, cognitive flexibility, and anticipation are also developing skills already at work at a young age – all thanks to play! Your little learners are absorbing information fast and furiously.

Luckily, play comes naturally for all ages, from babies and toddlers to preschoolers and kindergarteners. And with your expert guidance, having certain kinds of play in the classroom will help your curriculum go from good to great!

Parten’s Stages of Play

Before we dive into ideas for cooperative play activities, let’s review the basics. Sociologist Mildred Parten Newhall’s social stages of play theory, known as Parten’s Stages of Play, covers play progression for children from newborn to age six. Parten’s Stages of Play is one of the leading theories of stages of play and has contributed greatly to our modern understanding of play.

  1. Unoccupied Play: When a child is not playing, just observing. An example may be standing in one spot and performing random movements. In this phase, an infant is beginning to experience a new and exciting world through their senses.
  2. Solitary (Independent) Play: When a child is alone and maintains focus on an activity. The child is usually uninterested and unaware of what others are doing at the time, and this behavior is common in ages two to three.
  3. Onlooker Play: When a child watches others play but doesn’t engage in it. Motivated by curiosity, the child is learning how play “works” through observation, learning the skills he’ll need when he is ready to jump in.
  4. Parallel Play: When a child plays separately from others but in close proximity to them, mimicking their actions. In this phase, children enjoy the excitement and buzz of being around other kids, but don’t know how to step into another child’s game or vice versa. (This is a term that most parents have likely heard! You go to a playdate, but the kids seem to barely interact.) In fact, this is a very important transitory stage from the social immature solitary stage and onlooker play to the more mature associative and cooperative play.
  5. Associative Play: When a child is interested in the people playing but not in coordinating activities with those people (or, there may be no organized activity at all). There is a lot of interaction involved, but activities are not in sync, and there is no common goal.
  6. Cooperative Play: When the child is interested both in the people playing and the activity they are doing. There are usually distinct roles and desired outcomes for the group at play. Kids usually begin to engage in this final phase of play, with activities for cooperation, around four to five years of age.

According to Parten, as children become older and improve communication skills – and as opportunities for peer interaction become more common – social types of play (associative and cooperative) become more common.

Cooperative Play Ideas

Now for the fun part: brainstorming and creating cooperative classroom activities based on the theories of stages of play! We’re going to focus on cooperative play, the developmentally appropriate type of play for your classroom’s age ranges, and ways to brainstorm these activities for cooperation. Cooperative play in the classroom involves children playing and working with others towards a common goal or purpose, so it’s important to remember that is the ultimate overarching goal as you work to develop classroom curriculum in this area.

Cooperative play activities are organized and structured, with participants often assigned roles working toward a desired team outcome. For more advanced classrooms beyond preschool and kindergarten, these might include more dramatic play activities (like playing school) or a game with official rules to follow (like freeze tag).

Some thought-starters for great cooperative play activities in the classroom include:

  • Treasure hunt
  • Puzzles
  • Painting a mural
  • Building dens or forts
  • Constructing buildings or cities (from boxes or blocks)
  • Acting out shared stories (using dolls or toys)
  • Relay races
  • Team games
  • Making up a synchronized dance
  • Board games
  • Recreating scenarios from everyday life with assigned roles (going to the doctor, visiting the grocery store or eating a meal)

If you feel like you’re running out of ideas for cooperative play in the classroom (we know – so many hours and so many days in a school week!), you’re not alone. It turns out, creating play can be really hard work. But while little learners and young children can thrive on routines, it’s always beneficial for learning and development to shake it up and introduce new ways for them to interact and play. Consider these ideas to keep it fresh!

Use available resources

The opportunities for cooperative play activities are truly endless. Brainstorm with co-workers (consider a shared running document with all of your combined ideas so everyone benefits!), search for new ideas online, and keep a notebook or calendar of the games and activities you’ve covered in the classroom and when.

Move between different environments

The world is your oyster. If you have a place to play and explore outside at school, little learners can work together to do activities like rake leaves, build a snow fort, or plant and take care of a garden. Additionally, children can collaborate to use what’s already there (e.g., playground equipment and toys) in a specific way that gives everyone in the group the opportunity to play. For example, tell kids to rotate between the swings, see-saw, and the slide.

Be your (child-like) self & other tips

Making space and time for cooperative play activities based on theories of stages of play will bring many benefits to your classroom environment, as well as the development of students, with long-term positive outcomes for little ones. Here are some of our top tips when considering your curriculum and supervising cooperative play:

  • Promote Diversity
  • Think of New Ways to Play
  • Remember The Power of Spontaneity
  • Be Your (Child-like) Self
  • Don’t Interrupt a Good Thing
  • Have Fun!

Want to learn more about this topic?

CCEI offers CHD 104: The Importance of Play in Early Childhood,  a two-hour, intermediate-level course that provides an overview of theories of stages of play and the importance of play for promoting optimal development during early childhood and beyond. Participants will learn about the benefits of play, different types of play, and ways to promote more play.

CCEI also offers CHD 105: Focusing on Expressive Play and Artistic Development. This two-hour, intermediate-level course focuses on the importance various forms of play have on development, with emphasis on expressive play, which can be incorporated throughout most activities.

Click here to learn more about these offerings, as well as CCEI’s entire catalog of courses designed to help you be the best educator possible!