Play is one of the best ways to help your toddler develop skills they’ll use for life. A range of toys not only provides hours of entertainment, but can also help toddlers develop crucial physical and emotional skills. There are different levels of play, and as your child grows you’ll find they progress through these different stages: solitary, onlooker, parallel, associative, and finally, cooperative.
Here are some of the roles your toddler’s toys play to help them grow during the different stages of play.
Solitary play (3 months to 2.5 years)
While this isn’t the first stage of play (that’s unoccupied, which kicks off from birth), solitary play is the stage your little one will enter at the beginning of their toddler years.
During solitary play, your toddler will play alone and won’t be interested in joining with other kids yet. Solitary play teaches your toddler how to keep themselves entertained, and is a stage that will continue throughout their childhood. This is perfectly healthy as kids need to play by themselves every now-and-then.
Great toys for this age include items like building blocks, a book to flip through or some plush toys for role play. You might even find that puzzles or toys that your toddler has to put together are great for this stage of play.
Onlooker play (2 to 3 years)
As your little one ages, you’ll find they grow out of solitary play. Instead, they’ll start to look to others around them, leading them into the onlooker play stage. At this stage, they’ll still prefer to play by themselves, but will also play close to other children and observe how they play. Onlooker play helps your toddler learn about other types of play and how to play alongside other kids, and also develops their problem-solving skills and confidence.
Open-ended toys, like blocks and magnetic tiles, are great onlooker play toys for your toddler, so they can learn from what they observe, before moving on to the next stage of play: parallel play.
Parallel play (2+ years)
With parallel play your toddler will go from observing how other kids play, to playing next to and imitating them. Even though they still won’t be interacting with other kids, they’ll be one step closer to socialising and making friends. Parallel play helps your toddler grow and develop gross and fine motor skills, express their emotions, and learn about social boundaries.
When your toddler reaches this stage, organise a small playdate with one or two other kids for them to play alongside with toys that allow them to share and parallel play. Play-Doh, paint sets, arts and crafts, and colouring books and crayons are great toys for parallel play.
Associative play (3+ years)
The associative play stage is when your toddler will start playing and socialising with the other kids around them.
This stage allows them to make friends, while putting the skills they picked up during the onlooker and parallel play stages to use. At this stage your toddler won’t create organised play, or play with an overall goal. Instead, you’ll find them running around with other kids or borrowing and swapping toys.
Associative play not only helps your toddler make new friends, but they also develop problem-solving and reasoning skills, enhance their vocabulary, and learn how to work together with others.
Pretend play sets (e.g. a play kitchen or supermarket) or dress-up and costumes are great for associative play. They allow your toddler to play with other kids, while still having their own role and toys to focus on.
These skills will help your toddler move onto the next stage of their lives: preschool.
Future stages of play
When your toddler gets ready to head off to preschool, they’ll move into the final stage of play: cooperative play. Cooperative play is also known as social play, where kids play with others as part of a team in a more organised and goal-oriented fashion. Cooperative play teaches kids how to control their emotions, compromise, share, and resolve conflict – all skills that will be necessary for them not only at preschool and “big” school, but throughout their lives.
While toys can provide your toddler with hours of fun and entertainment, they clearly provide so much more for their growth and development. With a variety of toys to play with, as well as encouragement from you and others they love as they make their way through the different stages of play, your toddler will grow into a strong, healthy and happy person.