Everyone remembers the good old days of recess, right? Playing four-square, tag, climbing on the jungle-jim, or just talking with your friends. While recess is a much needed mental and physical break for kids of all ages, recess, or playtime, is crucial for a preschooler’s mental, social, and physical development.

When you look at a group of kids, or even just two children playing together, they don’t need to read instructions on the back of a board game box or talk about who is doing what, they can simply just play with whatever is in front of them, or however their imaginations work it out. And if you look closely at children playing, you can recognize different types of play.

In 1929, the sociologist Mildred Parten Newhall completed her dissertation that developed the idea that there are six stages of child’s play: unoccupied, independent, onlooker, parallel, associative, and cooperative play. In this blog, we’ll take a look at each type of play and offer suggestions for activities for each type.

At Madame Curie School, we love watching our students learn, grow, and develop! From day one, your child will be immersed in our STEAM ++ Curriculum, which is a focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, Language Arts, Motor Skills, and Socio-Emotional skills. They will learn how to independently solve problems, how to socialize and interact with other kids, and they can continue developing their fine and gross motor skills. The curriculum is set up in a way for children to get the educational foundation they need to become curious learners throughout their school years. If you’re looking for an outstanding preschool in the Herndon or Chantilly area, get in touch with the team at Madame Curie School.

6 Types of Children’s Play


For young infants, unoccupied play is simply letting them lie on their back playing with their toes, a rattle, or a stuffed animal. Even though this may not seem like play because there isn’t anyone else your child is playing with, they are still doing a lot of observing and are learning about their bodies and the environment around them. Parents don’t need to have an organized game or something for their child to do, just let them explore and learn in a way that feels right for them. Give them an object to grasp, something to look at, or something that makes noise, and they can entertain themselves for hours — or until they get hungry.

Solitary, or Independent

When your child reaches the age of two or three years, you may notice that they sometimes play by themselves. This stage can vary depending on your child’s personality and temperament, whether they are introverts or extroverts, but at some point, they should be able to entertain themselves with a book, playing with a dollhouse, or building structures with blocks. This stage helps kids learn how to be self-sufficient and comfortable with their own selves. Often described as “playing quietly in the corner,” your kid may be singing to themselves, playing with a train set, or creating a fort with blankets or cardboard boxes.


Like the unoccupied stage of play, sitting and observing others or the world can be an incredibly powerful tool. The onlooker stage is when your child is simply observing other kids at play, watching how they interact, how they share toys, or talk to each other. In addition to watching other kids play, your child may also be watching you or other siblings play. If you like to play the piano, for example, notice if your child watches as you’re playing a song. Or notice what they do when you have friends over to play a game of cards. You can also take your child to the park and let them observe other kids in the sandbox. Actually sharing toys might be a little further down the road, but observing how it’s done is a great place to start.


This stage typically happens when kids are around three years old and is when children play alongside each other, but not necessarily with each other. During this stage of play, kids will still observe how the other child is playing and will even mimic what the other is doing, but will still continue playing on their own and with their own toys. Parallel play is a great introduction into sharing toys and an understanding of how to connect with others.


A great example of this stage is when two kids are playing with a set of blocks or art supplies. The kids can be creating their own structures or can work together to create one structure. This type of play occurs when kids are around three and four years old and they gain a variety of skills during this stage. They are learning how to socialize and collaborate with others, and they are increasing their language skills by learning how to communicate their ideas. Associate play is a great way to build necessary skills that are needed throughout their education as well as lasting friendships.


Combining social, communication, and teamwork skills, cooperative play is what most people think of when imagining kids at play. It takes all of the skills that were learned throughout the previous stages and combines them into this final type of play. When kids get together to play a game of soccer or kick-ball, they are working together on a team, communicating, and socializing. This type of play is great for all ages and can even help set them up for future school projects and even their work life.

At Madame Curie School, we have set up an environment where all types of play can occur. Regardless of how old your child is, whether they are going into preschool or kindergarten, our staff will be there to provide support, guidance, and to help cultivate a love of learning. For preschoolers, learning is playtime! So when your kids attend Madame Curie School, we strive to make playtime as educational as possible.