What Is Associative Play? Examples and Benefits

What Is Associative Play? Examples and Benefits

Associative play is a stage of play where children begin to show interest in playing with others. While they play next to each other, they interact by sharing toys or imitating each other, but there is no structured or coordinated goal. When they play with others, they’re working together towards a common objective.

Associative play is an important step in social development as it helps children learn social norms, develop communication skills, and initiate connections with peers.

What Are the Different Stages of Play?

In 1932, a researcher named Mildred Parten identified six stages of children’s social play. Children engage in these stages at varying levels as they grow and develop. These stages are not strictly sequential, and children may exhibit characteristics of multiple stages simultaneously, but they do have a noticeable trend to build off of each other. 

1. Unoccupied Play

This stage refers to spontaneous and seemingly random movements or activities without a specific play goal. Children may appear to be daydreaming, exploring their surroundings, or making seemingly purposeless movements.

This is most common during infancy, when children are just beginning to explore the world around them. It is characterized by non-distinct playful actions with no real goal or direction. This type of play allows children to discover new sensory exploration, parts of themselves, and features of their environments.

2. Solitary Play

During solitary play, children engage in independent play and are focused on their own activities without interaction with others. They may play with toys, engage in imaginative play, or work on individual projects.

This is first observed when babies begin to play with toys or rattles. They are learning about the different noises and sensations of the specific toy or object they are playing with without interest in sharing, showing others, or interacting. 

While most common in babies and young children, older children can engage in solitary play when they are exploring new interests or working on individual projects without engaging with others. Sometimes, children with autism spectrum disorder show a preference for solitary play as it provides more of a sense of comfort and control. 

3. Onlooker Play

In this stage, children observe and show interest in the play of others without actively participating. They may ask questions or comment but don’t join in. Onlooker play provides an opportunity for children to learn by observing and gathering information from their peers.

Children may gain new ideas, skills, or perspectives by watching others play. It also allows them to become familiar with different play styles, rules, and social dynamics. Onlooker play can help children build confidence, develop language skills, and practice social interactions in a less pressured or participatory role.

While this type of play may appear passive, it’s actually very significant in a child’s social development. It lays the foundation for future engagement in more interactive forms of play.

4. Parallel Play

Parallel play occurs when children play alongside each other, engaging in similar activities without active interaction or cooperation. They may imitate each other's actions, use the same toys, or be engaged in similar play themes, but there is limited or no direct engagement with their peers.

This type of play occurs most frequently during the toddler ages between two and three. When observing parallel play, you will see children focus on their own individual play, and they may occasionally observe or imitate the actions of others.

5. Associative Play

Associative play marks a stage where children start showing interest in playing with others. They engage in activities alongside their peers, sharing materials or ideas, and may briefly interact or communicate. However, there is no structured or coordinated goal, and each child pursues their own play.

Associative play is typically a transitional stage between parallel play and more cooperative forms of play. During this play, children are beginning to show interest in social interactions and play with peers but have not yet fully developed the skills for structured collaboration or joint play goals.

6. Cooperative Play

Cooperative play is the most advanced stage of play. Children actively engage and collaborate with each other toward a common goal. They work together, assign roles, communicate effectively, and engage in shared decision-making. Cooperative play involves mutual respect, teamwork, and collective problem-solving.

Cooperative play typically emerges around the age of three or four and continues to develop throughout childhood and beyond. 

When Does Associative Play Typically Occur?

Associative play can typically be seen around ages two to three. During this stage, children develop social skills, learn social norms, and explore the dynamics of playing with peers. They begin to recognize and acknowledge the presence of others, show interest in their friends’ play activities, and engage in casual interactions.

Associative play allows children to practice socialization, develop communication skills, and navigate the dynamics of play more interactively. It provides opportunities for sharing, turn-taking, and observing different play styles. While each child maintains their own play agenda, they begin to incorporate elements from their peers' play themes or activities.

It's important to note that children develop at different rates, and the timing and duration of associative play may vary. Some children may engage in associative play earlier or continue to exhibit associative play behaviors even as they progress into more cooperative play stages.

There is no one-size-fits-all age range for the stages of play, which is why it’s important to keep in mind how these stages interact with each other rather than just the anticipated age for each.

What Are the Benefits of Associative Play?

Associative play offers several benefits for children's development. First, it provides opportunities for socialization as children interact with their peers, observe different play styles, and engage in casual conversations. This helps them develop social skills, such as taking turns, sharing, and communicating. 

Associative play fosters creativity and imagination as children incorporate elements from their peers' play and learn from their ideas. Additionally, it supports language development as children engage in verbal exchanges and vocabulary expansion. Finally, associative play helps children gain a sense of belonging, cooperation, and an understanding of social norms, setting the foundation for more complex forms of play and future social interactions.

Enhance Problem-Solving and Cognitive Skills

During associative play, children observe and imitate their peers' actions, which exposes them to different approaches and problem-solving strategies. They can learn new problem-solving techniques by observing how others navigate challenges or overcome obstacles in their play. This is a more natural way for children to learn problem-solving skills than being directly told or taught. 

Engaging in associative play often involves negotiating and collaborating with peers. Children may encounter conflicts or disagreements requiring problem-solving skills to resolve and maintain social harmony. This promotes critical thinking, perspective-taking, and the ability to discover compromises.

This play encourages cognitive flexibility as children adapt their play based on the ideas and actions of others. They learn to adjust their strategies, gain new information, and consider alternative perspectives without the pressure of needing to follow another’s lead.

Additionally, associative play often involves complex play scenarios that require imaginative thinking and planning. Children may create and follow rules and engage in imaginative problem-solving within the context of their play themes.

Foster Collaboration and Understanding

Through engaging in associative play, children learn to navigate social interactions, negotiate, and begin to cooperate with their peers. They develop an understanding of shared play spaces, taking turns and respecting each other's ideas and preferences. This introduction to collaboration promotes a sense of teamwork and the ability to work together towards a common goal.

When little ones engage in associative play, they gain opportunities to share materials, exchange ideas, and build upon each other's play. This collaborative aspect allows them to explore different perspectives, expand their creativity, and develop an appreciation for diverse viewpoints. They learn to communicate their thoughts and listen to others, fostering a sense of empathy and understanding.

Additionally, associative play involves informal problem-solving situations where children collaborate to overcome challenges or resolve conflicts that may arise during play. This collaborative problem-solving nurtures their ability to work together, consider different solutions, and reach agreements.

By engaging in associative play, children develop social skills, enhance their ability to collaborate and cultivate an understanding of others' perspectives. They learn the value of cooperation, respect, and effective communication, essential qualities for positive social interactions in play settings and real-life situations.

Boost Self-Confidence and Emotional Intelligence

During associative play, children have the opportunity to interact with their peers, share ideas, and contribute to the play scenario. This active participation and engagement can boost their self-confidence as they see the value of their contributions and develop a sense of competence in their abilities.

Playing associatively involves social interactions and communication with others. Children learn to express themselves, listen to their peers, and understand different perspectives. This helps develop their emotional intelligence as they become more attuned to their own emotions and the emotions of others. They learn to empathize, understand social cues, and navigate social dynamics, fostering their emotional awareness and social competence.

This play often involves problem-solving and decision-making situations. As children collaborate and make choices during play, they develop a sense of autonomy and decision-making skills. This can contribute to their self-confidence and a sense of agency in their own abilities.

Associative play provides a safe and supportive environment for children to take risks, experiment, and make mistakes. They learn to cope with challenges, handle conflicts, and manage their emotions within the context of play, which can enhance their resilience and emotional regulation.

Encourage Motor Skills Development

Associative play can develop fine or gross motor skills if the play is interactive. If children engage in various physical activities such as running, jumping, climbing, or manipulating objects, these movements help develop their gross motor skills, coordination, and balance. For example, playing catch or participating in group games can improve their throwing and catching abilities.

If not outdoor or sports-related, associative play often involves fine motor activities, such as building with blocks, drawing, or manipulating small objects. These activities promote the development of hand-eye coordination, finger dexterity, and fine motor control. Children strengthen their grip, refine their finger movements, and enhance their manual skills through these play experiences.

Associative play can also incorporate activities that require bilateral coordination, such as playing with construction sets or engaging in cooperative games. These activities involve using both hands simultaneously, promoting the development of bilateral coordination and the integration of movements between the left and right sides of the body.


Deepen Language and Communication Skills

When children engage in conversations, exchange ideas, and express their thoughts and feelings, this verbal interaction provides opportunities for language development, vocabulary expansion, and sentence structure refinement. Children learn to communicate effectively, use appropriate language, and express themselves clearly.

Associative play encourages active listening and comprehension skills. Children learn to listen to their peers, follow instructions, and understand the context of differing play scenarios. They begin to develop the ability to interpret nonverbal cues, understand social dynamics, and respond appropriately in different social situations.

Associative play often involves storytelling, role-playing, and imaginative play scenarios. Children use language and vocabulary to create narratives, describe characters or events, and engage in pretend play dialogues. This promotes their storytelling abilities, narrative skills, and creative use of language.

What’s more, associative play can incorporate literacy-related activities such as reading books, creating signs or posters, or engaging in word games. These activities promote early literacy skills, letter recognition, and phonological awareness.

How Can I Help Facilitate Associative Play?

As a parent, you can facilitate associative play in some of the following ways: 

  • Create a supportive play environment: Provide a space where children can engage in associative play comfortably. Ensure there are ample materials and toys or open-ended props that encourage imaginative play and collaboration.
  • Encourage social interactions: Arrange playdates or playgroups where children can interact with their peers. Allow the children to play without setting specific goals or pressure to cooperate or collaborate just yet. 
  • Be an active participant: You can engage in associative play alongside your child and their peers. Model positive social interactions, use open-ended questions to stimulate conversation and show interest in their play ideas. Your involvement can encourage their engagement and deepen their play experiences.
  • Provide opportunities for varied play experiences: Offer a range of play activities and materials that promote associative play, such as arts and crafts, sensory bins, building blocks, props, or games. Rotate and introduce new toys or materials to spark their imagination and keep the play experiences fresh.
  • Celebrate creativity and imagination: Acknowledge and praise their imaginative play ideas, creativity, and unique perspectives. Create an atmosphere where taking risks, trying new things, and thinking outside the box are valued and encouraged.

The Bottom Line

Associative play is a vital stage in children's social development, providing valuable opportunities for socialization, sharing, and turn-taking. It allows children to explore social dynamics, develop communication skills, and gain exposure to different play styles. Although it lacks structured cooperation, associative play serves as a bridge toward more advanced forms of collaborative play. 

Encouraging and supporting children's engagement in associative play can contribute to their social competence, relationship-building skills, and overall social-emotional development.

Learn more about facilitating different types of play for your little one and find toys and games to help engage them from Big Heart Toys!


The power of play | Part 1: Stages of play | Child & Family Development

25 Sensational Sensory Activities for Toddlers | Rasmussen University

Communication and Your 2- to 3-Year-Old (for Parents) | Nemours KidsHealth

Children Sharing and Learning to Share | Raising Children Network

Bilateral Coordination | Children’s Minnesota

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