Headstart for Life

The Social Play: All You Need to Know

Posted on Monday, September 16, 2019 by 3 minutes

Welcome back to Headstart For Life’s Blog, Beyond Therapy!

In today’s blog post, we are going to explore how a child’s level of play changes over time, as well as how adults can support children in maximising their growth potential at each stage of play.

adult in social play

The way children play reflects what they know of the world, how they organise their world, and how they conceptualise social interaction. A child’s level of play changes over time with maturation in his/her mental and cognitive state, language skills, psychological and emotional states, physical structure and social skills. These stages become more socially integrated and complex as the child matures.


Research has documented the different stages of social play that a child progresses through during early childhood. The following guidelines only give a point of reference. It is important to note that children don’t necessarily move chronologically from one stage to the next, and should not be compared with their peers due to individual needs, strengths and preferences.



Age at which it typically appears: Birth – 2 years

solitary play

At this stage, children play alone, with their own toys. They are exploring, learning about and making sense of the world around them. When engaged in solitary play, children do not seem to notice other children sitting or playing nearby.

Roles the adult can play:

1. Provide your child with the right toys. 

Every new object or situation that is introduced is a new learning experience. Introduce different types of toys to your child, such as blocks, playdoh, puzzles and Lego blocks. Let your child experiment and discover different ways of playing with the toys. You can also play alongside your child while adding new ways of playing with the same toy.

2. Create a safe environment for your child. 

Ensure that there is an ample and safe space for your child to play around in and explore.

3. Give your child his/her own space.

Try not to rush in at every opportunity. Let your child have the space and freedom to make his/her own choices. Watch, observe and follow your child’s lead. Give your child the space to imagine and explore on his/her own as this fosters concentration, creativity and focus. Solitary play also builds skills needed for working independently.



Age at which it typically appears: 2 – 3 years

parallel play

Parallel play starts when children start to play alongside others their age, but without any interaction. Even though it seems like they are not interacting, they are paying attention to each other, watching and listening to their peers. This is the beginning of the desire to be with other children. This stage lays the groundwork for the more complex social stages of play.

Roles the adult can play:

1. Create opportunities for your child to mingle.

Arrange playdates for your child with children around their age. Keep the playdate small so your child will not feel overwhelmed with too many new people introduced to his/her environment at the same time. Playdates create opportunities for your child to create and foster friendships. This is an important first step in forming strong social relationships outside the family.

2. Engage your child in the same activity as his/her peer.

Prepare several toys or activities that are the same for both your child and his/her playdate. For example, provide two toy trains, or give them a pile of the same wooden blocks. Children at this age may not be ready to share toys with each other yet. Therefore, giving them the same sets of toys will encourage them to play near each other without snatching or fighting over the same toy. Some toys that are suitable for parallel play include blocks, playdoh, sand, paint and crayons/colour pencils. By creating opportunities for them to build something out of the materials given, you are not just stimulating your child’s imagination, but also inviting the mirroring of actions! This mimicking of peer’s actions is a vital step in encouraging observation skills, working with and getting along with peers, as well as working independently.



Age at which it typically appears: 3 – 4 years

20312243 - two cute little girls playing role game in daycare

This is the age where children begin to truly play with each other. They share the play materials but each of them has their own play agenda. Children will begin to interact through talking, borrowing and taking turns with toys within the same activity. However, as there is no common purpose, there is no division of labour or organization of the activity around materials, goal or product.

Roles the adult can play:

1. Promote sharing and exchanging of materials.

Limit similar materials in the same activity. For example, provide only one knife in a pretend cooking activity, or one child has the drum, and the other has a xylophone while playing with the musical instruments. This will create opportunities for your child to ask his/her peer for a toy or material that he/she needs.

2. Model the language needed in the social interactions.

The language of a child at this age is still developing, and he/she may not have sufficient language skills to support the social interactions that he/she wants to initiate. You can model ways your child can comment on his/her peer’s play actions, or ways he/she can ask the peer for something he/she needs in a polite manner. This is crucial in laying the foundation for the following stage of social play – cooperative play – in which a child has to use language extensively for a variety of communicative purposes, such as negotiating, persuading, or giving commands to others.



Age at which it typically appears: 4 – 5 years

cooperative play 1


Cooperative play is the most advanced level of social play. The child is part of a larger group that has a collective goal such as making an art project or putting on a skit. During cooperative play, different roles are assigned to each person in the group, and the roles of the leader and followers are often visible.

Roles the adult can play:

1. Promote collaborative goals.

Suggest activities in which there can be a common goal, such as building a sandcastle, opening a restaurant/clinic, or acting out a familiar story (e.g. Red Riding Hood). You can decide if you want to provide all the materials the group needs to achieve their ultimate goal. By holding back some of the materials, you can create opportunities for the group to brainstorm ideas and work together in gathering the missing materials.

2. Suggest different roles in contributing to a similar activity.

Help the children identify possible roles in an activity. For example, in order to open a restaurant, there will need to be a chef, waiter and customers. Subsequently, allow them to discuss or even assign roles to each other.

3. Point out conflicts and encourage perspective taking skills.

Your child may need assistance in resolving conflicts and finding meaningful solutions. Guide your child in listening to his/her peers, labelling emotions in himself/herself and others, as well as identifying what the problem is. You may, however, want to take a step back to give the children their own space to come up with solutions to the problem. This will encourage them to develop important social-emotional skills such as self-advocacy and empathy towards others.


Play is the universal language of childhood, but playing together with other children can present many challenges. However, with proper support from adults, children can become skilled at working with others to develop and maintain friendships.

Thank you for reading and stay tuned to HeadStart For Life to catch our next post at Beyond Therapy!



Parten, M. (1932). Social participation among preschool children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 28 (3): 136–147.

"All the information on this site is for educational purposes only and does not replace the assessment and intervention of a registered speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist or any other medical or education professional."

About Danica

Danica believes that working together with parents and professionals will uncover the full potential that every child possesses. She is thankful for the opportunities to work together with each child and their families, and feels privileged for being able to witness and celebrate every step of progress that the child makes along the way.

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