As children grow, they move through distinct developmental stages that impact how they interact with the world and the people around them. While parents are often quick to note developmental milestones like learning to sit up or sleeping through the night, there are also important social milestones your child will move through.

One such milestone is reaching the cooperative stage of play. If you’re interested in learning more about the stages of play, read on!

Cooperative play is the last of the six stages of play described by sociologist Mildred Parten. Cooperative play involves children playing and working with others towards a common goal or purpose.

Being able to participate in cooperative play is extremely important. It means that your child has the skills they’ll need later to collaborate and cooperate at school and in other typical social settings, like sports.

Cooperative play doesn’t happen overnight though. Before your child reaches this stage, you should expect to see them move through five earlier stages of play.

Unoccupied play

Unoccupied play, the first stage, is when an infant begins to experience the world through their senses. They move their body and interact with objects simply because it’s interesting or because it feels good.

At this stage, your little one enjoys things with interesting textures and patterns or items that they can touch or see.

Solitary play

After unoccupied play, children move into the independent or solitary play stage. During this stage, a child will play on their own with little to no regard to what other adults or kids around them are doing.

During this stage, your child might stack and knock over blocks, line up or move around objects, flip through a book, or enjoy shaking a noise maker or other similar toy.

Onlooker play

During the onlooker play stage children will observe the play of other kids while not actually playing themselves. Motivated by an intense curiosity, little ones might sit and observe others for long periods of time without trying to jump in and play.

During this stage your child is observing how play “works” and learning the skills they’ll need to jump in when they feel ready.

Parallel play

After mastering onlooker play, a child will be ready to move into parallel play. During parallel play, children will play beside and in proximity to other children without actually playing with them. Children often enjoy the buzz that comes with being around other kids, but they don’t yet know how to step into others’ games or ask other kids to step into their games.

You may feel awkward when you head to a playdate and it seems like your child ignores the other children, but often they’re just engaging in an earlier play stage like this one.

Associative play

The final stage of play prior to cooperative play is associative play. During associative play, children will play with one another but don’t organize their play toward a common goal. Kids might be talking, laughing, and playing together but have totally different ideas about the outcome of the game they’re each playing.

Your child and their friends may all be playing a game that involves cooking, but one may be a chef, one may be a daddy cooking dinner, and one may be making a snack for their dinosaur.

Cooperative play

Finally, after lots of practice communicating and collaborating, a child moves into the final stage of play, cooperative play.

You will notice your child has moved on to cooperative play when they can communicate desired outcomes with others and collaborate towards a common goal with each person having a distinct role to play.

While every child is different and will move through the stages of play at a different pace, in general, kids begin to engage in cooperative play between the ages of 4 and 5.

The ability to play cooperatively depends on your child’s ability to learn and exchange ideas and assign and accept roles in their play. Typically, children under 4 are not yet ready to share their toys for the sake of a game, to respect the property rights of other children, or to understand the importance of rules and bounds within a game.

You can encourage cooperative play by example. Play games that require taking turns, discuss assigning roles within play, and encourage communication and feedback.

Cooperative play allows children to work together towards a common goal instead of in opposition to one another or in pursuit of winning. Parents and caregivers can foster cooperative play by creating an environment with tools and games kids can use to work cooperatively.

Outdoors, children can work together to rake leaves, build a snow fort, or plant and tend to a garden. Children can also collaborate to use playground equipment or outside toys in a way that ensures that everyone gets the opportunity to play, like rotating between the slide, the swings, and the monkey bars.

Indoors, children can construct buildings and cities from boxes or blocks together or use figurines and dolls to act out shared stories. Children can also recreate scenarios they see in their everyday life, such as playing grocery store, doctor’s office, or veterinarian.

At this stage, children may also begin to enjoy more organized card or board games that allow them to work towards a common goal or point total. They may also enjoy collaborative work like building a puzzle together or painting a mural.

Encouraging your child to participate in cooperative play is important for fostering their long term social development. During cooperative play they can learn and develop a number of life skills that will help them get along with others and move through the world successfully.

During cooperative play children learn:


Cooperation is an essential life skill that children will use at home, at school, and in the community as they grow.

Play that fosters a sense of cooperation in kids shows them that working together allows them to have more fun and more readily reach their goal than working or playing independently.


During cooperative play children must express their needs and desires as well as hear and respect the needs and desires of others. Kids learn that if they don’t communicate or listen effectively, their play simply won’t be as fun.

As kids continue to grow and develop, they refine their communication skills through play and carry these skills into different parts of their lives.


During cooperative play kids each have a distinct role to play in their game. As kids negotiate rules and roles, they learn that they must think from the perspective of others to ensure that the game is “fair” for all.

This recognition that different people experience the same situations differently is one of the earliest forms of empathy.


During cooperative play children assign one another roles to play and rules to follow and then must trust that everyone will comply. Children learn to value one another’s strengths and contributions and to trust that they’ll each participate in the agreed upon way.

Conflict resolution

Reaching the cooperative stage of play does not mean that children will never experience conflict when they play, in fact, playing cooperatively often creates bountiful opportunities for little ones to practice their budding conflict resolution skills.

As conflict arises, children must learn to effectively communicate the problem and to brainstorm compromises and solutions that are acceptable and workable for all parties involved.

Cooperative play is the final stage of play and represents your child’s ability to collaborate and cooperate with other children towards a common goal.

Children often reach the cooperative stage of play between 4 and 5 years of age after they have moved through the earlier five stages of play. You can foster cooperative play by setting up your home environment in a way that gives your child the tools and toys they need to create cooperative games.

Children learn through play and, as they play cooperatively with other kids, your child will learn essential life skills that they’ll use now and as they grow!