It's your turn to host play group, but you're wondering if these kids are having any fun. After all, even though they're playing with toys, they don't seem to be communicating much. It's not that they don't like one another; they just happen to be in that particular stage of developmental play.
Through play, children discover a lot about themselves and the world around them. They learn to share, take turns and socialize when they reach higher levels of play. Kids don't all play the same way, even when they are in the same age group. They pass through distinct stages of play as they grow and develop. Mildred Parten developed a system in the 1930s to classify the way kids participate in play, and it's still relevant today.
In the solitary stage, children are active and engaged in learning, but they prefer to be on their own in most settings, says Dr. Paul Busceni, dean of the School of Education at Kendall College in Chicago. A child in the solitary play stage isn't necessarily interested in other children. Sure, if the opportunity arises to grab another child's toy, he may seize it. Otherwise, he prefers to be left alone. He might observe others, but that isn't the impetus for his own learning.
Infants and young toddlers are in this stage of play. They learn through their senses. They want to look, touch, listen and taste. Be careful – they're not picky about what they taste. Cause and effect interests them. "If I drop this ball, it falls to the ground."
Spectators are children being observant of others, watching them and, at times, perhaps emulating their behavior, says Busceni. Their goal may not necessarily be to imitate another child's actions, but they find learning easier by watching others. This is sometimes called unoccupied play or onlooker behavior.
In the parallel-play stage, children are more aware of others, but they just occupy space together. They do things independently, even though they are near one another. One child might be playing with blocks while the other is coloring. They like being part of a group, but they are still egocentric, so they don't necessarily interact. They might talk, but it's not really a conversation. One child says, "I went to a movie," and the other interrupts, saying, "I'm going to the playground today."
Even an older child who is observant and watchful of others could exhibit this behavior. She may be cautious of a new game or a new skill. In an effort to master the game, she tries it sheepishly while watching others who might be more fluent, says Busceni.
Children in the associative-play stage engage, but they're not quite ready to participate in groups. They have more interest in their peers at this point. They play the same game, but they don't necessarily work together. If they're involved in dramatic play, one child might talk about her nurse's hat and the other child talks about his fireman's boots. They lend, borrow and take at this stage, but it's still every child on his own.
Associative-stage children are comfortable playing and learning with a variety of other children. They aren't necessarily into a routine, nor are they committed to only a few friends, says Busceni. They can be a bit outgoing in personality, but can also be hurtful in their behavior when their attention changes or shifts to another activity or another group of children (though they are most likely unaware of the hurtful behavior).
Cooperative-stage children play in small and large groups. This is the highest form of working together. Older preschool children are often at this level of play. They are interested in other kids, follow leaders and have more advanced social skills. When they play with blocks, they communicate and work together to build a tower. This stage continues with school-age children, but in a more formal way. They follow game rules and take directions.
Children who have outgoing, warm, welcoming personalities may likely be cooperative, in that they play with others frequently, according to Busceni. They are comfortable moving from friend to friend, person to person, or group to group. Sometimes commitment or closure is a roadblock for these kids, but they do work and play well with others.