As your little one grows, playing side-by-side and with other children will become a big part of their world.
While it can be hard to realize you’re no longer their everything — though don’t worry, you’re still the center of their universe for a while longer — this is a great stage in play development.
Your kiddo will play with others on the playground, at playgroups, at social events, at preschool — you name it. If there are other children around, precious playtime shenanigans can ensue. And that means you can stop being the number one source of entertainment (for now).
This is sometimes called associative play by child development experts. It’s a stage of development when preschool-aged children start to play with or next to other kids doing similar activities. You and I might not necessary call it playing with others, but it’s a big step all the same.
During associative play, toddlers start to take an interest in the other children and what they’re doing. That doesn’t mean they all come together for formal play with agreed-upon activity guidelines or even a common goal — but hey, even adults may find such coordination difficult!
Rather, kids at this stage — usually starting around ages 2–4 — are widening their play world to include others.
There are lots of child development models, so keep in mind that this is just one of them.
An American sociologist named Mildred Parten Newhall created the six stages of play. Associative play is considered the fifth of the six stages.
Here are the others, if you’re keeping track:
- Unoccupied play. A child is just observing, not playing. They start to look around and observe the world around them, but not necessarily the people in it.
- Solitary play. A child plays alone without any interest in interacting with others.
- Onlooker play. The child is observing others nearby, but not playing together with them.
- Parallel play. A child plays or does the same activity as others around them at the same time, but may not interact with them.
- Associative play. A child plays side-by-side with others, engaging at times but not coordinating efforts.
- Cooperative play. The child plays with others while interacting with them and is interested in both them and the activity.
Parallel and associative play are a lot alike. But during parallel play, your child is playing next to another child, but isn’t talking to them or engaging with them.
During associative play, a child begins to focus on the other person playing, and not just on their own play. Two children at this stage may talk and start to interact with one another. And yes, it’s pretty cute when this happens — the stuff viral YouTube videos are made of.
Your child may start associative play when they’re 3 or 4 years old, or as early as 2. This stage of play usually lasts until they’re around 4 or 5 years old, though children will continue to play this way at times even after entering the next stage of play.
But remember, every child develops at their own pace. Some solitary play is perfectly OK for preschool-aged children. In fact, it’s an important skill!
But if your child is playing by themselves all the time, you may want to encourage them to start to interact and share with others — also a crucial skill.
You can help encourage them by being the one to play with them first, but allow them to run the playtime show. You can then show them sharing and interacting skills by doing it yourself!
If you’re concerned about your child’s development, chat with an expert like their pediatrician or a teacher. They can recommend a specialist, if needed.
Here’s what associative play may look like:
- Outside, kids ride tricycles next to one another but don’t have a coordinated plan of where they’re going.
- At preschool, children build a tower out of blocks but don’t have a formal plan or any organization.
- After school, kids paint a canvas together using the same materials but don’t communicate to create a unified picture or necessarily comment on what others are drawing.
- One toddler plays with a toy and your child joins them and copies what they’re doing. They may chat, but they don’t make a formal plan together or set any rules.
This is a great stage for benefits that follow your little one all the way into adulthood. These include:
Problem solving and conflict resolution
As your child starts to play and interact with other children more, they’ll gain some important problem-solving and conflict resolution skills, research shows.
Undirected play allows kids to:
- learn to work in groups
- solve problems
- learn self-advocacy
Although you should always keep an eye on your child when they’re playing at such a young age, try to only interfere when absolutely necessary. (It’s hard, we know!) Instead, allow them to work out their own conflicts as much as possible as they start to play with others.
As your child plays with other kids, they’ll start to share toys and art supplies. This won’t always be painless — even adults don’t always share well! — but they’ll need to learn cooperation as they recognize that some things belong to others.
Healthy brain development
Associative play — and sometimes all play in general — is important for your child’s brain. It allows them to use their imagination as they create and explore the world around them.
It may not seem like it, but research shows that playtime gives your child the social-emotional readiness they need to get ready for an academic environment. That’s because they’re developing the skills needed for school like cognition, learning behaviors, and problem solving.
They’re also interacting with others, but not at the expense of others, an important skill your child will need in preschool and eventually, elementary school — and of course, beyond.
Reduce childhood obesity
Allowing your child to be active and engage with others may reduce childhood obesity.
Encourage your child to play with others and be active several times a week instead of spending time in front of a screen. This can help to build healthy, active bodies. (To be clear, learning can happen during screen time, too — just not this specific type of learning.)
Making plenty of time for play is essential for your child. They’re learning important skills like cooperation and problem solving.
While it’s OK for your preschool-aged child to play alone, you can also encourage them to play alongside others.
Some will take longer than others to get there. If you’re worried about their development or social skills, talk to their pediatrician — a great ally who has likely seen it all and can make recommendations tailored to you.