We’ve all heard the old adage that play is a child’s work…but did you know that their job starts at birth? And that, perhaps much like your own career path, a child’s play journey is on a predictable trajectory where the skills and know-how gleaned from one “job,” carries over to the next, and the next. Wondering if your kiddo is entry level or nearing CEO status? Here’s the breakdown of the six classic stages of play…and how to make the most out of each.
Unoccupied Play: Birth to 3 Months
It may be hard to believe but, yes, even newborns are starting to glean the power and purpose of play. While your precious baby surely is not picking up a truck to vroom-vroom all over the floor, they are very much soaking up the way you “play” with them—whether it’s singing, rocking, shaking a rattle, or putting them down for tummy time.
Young babies are also very interested in moving and wiggling their arms and legs; their hands and feet; and everything in between. With that, they’re learning how their body moves…which is important for later stages of play. Pique their interest with sensory-filled activities (tickles, butterfly kisses, baby massage) that familiarize your baby with their body.
Solitary Play: 3 Months to 2 Years
Three months is a ballpark here. As your baby’s vision improves and can take in brighter hues and contrasting colors and textures, the more interested they’ll be in the objects around them. For the littlest ones, this means lounging on a playmat or a play gym and batting, squeezing, crinkling, and gazing at toys and objects…without your help. Here, your tot’s main objective is to explore by way of touching, grasping, tasting, and looking.
As babies progress toward toddlerhood, you may worry that your nugget isn’t remotely interested in sharing toys with other kids. You may also worry that your toddler doesn’t seem to be aware of what other children are doing around them. Rest assured, this is all very normal! In fact, children often don’t have the communication skills to effectively play with other kids until (at the very least) they turn 24 months (and often up to 30 months).
Right now, basic cause-and-effect toys—including simple musical instruments—are top-of-the-list picks, as are bead mazes, puzzles, interactive board books, activity tables, and play kitchens. (Here are a few more toys that 2-year-olds love.)
Onlooker Play: 2 to 3.5 Years
Toddlers go back-and-forth between independent play and onlooker play. With onlooker play, your child spectates as other kids engage in an activity. (Any group of kiddos is fair game, but toddlers especially love to watch older children play.) While you might assume that your tot is too nervous or shy to join in the play, know that staying on the sidelines is a normal stage of development. Your kiddo actually isn’t simply sitting idly by. Instead, they are actively watching and gathering intel on the social rules of play and relationships—and how play is done.
Feed your tyke’s spectator needs by taking them to local parks, play spaces, and sandboxes where there are plenty of opportunities to tot-watch. Sometimes your child will sit or stand near other children who are playing without getting involved. But other times, your kiddo may cheer when a child’s action figure defeats a bad guy or ask questions and give suggestions about what they’re observing. And go ahead and set up playdates…just don’t stress if kids don’t interact.