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All Work and No Play?

In a world where academic achievements are the focus and everyone seems to be worried about 'kindergarten readiness,' unstructured play is often lost in a young human's daily life. The result is often a long list of adult planned activities that are driven by learning outcomes and force children to perform unnaturally (and sometimes at a level they are not ready for). With kindergarten becoming the new first grade, and educational outcomes being pushed to achieve earlier and earlier, I see the concern. The rigorous high-standards of what kindergarten has become and the fear that *gasp* your young human may be 'BEHIND' the others in their class is often a fear I hear caregivers express. The reality is that every young human develops differently and play is a crucial part of a young human's experience; “a way for [them] to make sense of his or her world” (Pramling Samuelsson & Asplund Carlsson, 2008). Play should not be eradicated from early education, in fact unstructured play should make up most, if not all, of a young human's day. Play isn’t ‘just fun’ for the young human, although interest and engagement are crucial, it also serves as a tool for cognitive, social-emotional, and gross motor development. Play-based curricula allow young humans to observe others, communicate, work cooperatively, act out their imaginations, and learn from mistakes, all of which have “lifelong impacts for [young humans]” (Rymanowicz, 2015, October 19).

As caregivers of young humans, it is important to be advocates for those in your care whether it be implementing a play-based curriculum in your classroom, encouraging play through social interactions (or play dates) with familiar peers, or setting aside time daily for your young human to be able to slow down and focus on their interests through independent play (also known as free play or free choice time). Because, at the end of the day, a young human should not be 'ready for kindergarten' or they WOULD BE in kindergarten. There is plenty of time in their life to feel the pressure to sit and engage, but for now, let them explore their world, learning through play. Therefore, I encourage you to advocate for your young human. Acknowledge that play is important to their development, make it a fixture in your young human's daily life.

But what IS play; what does play LOOK like? Well, Midred Parten researched and developed a classification system for play in 1932, and even though that was almost 90 years ago, “her classification of children’s social play is still viewed as one of the most comprehensive descriptions of young children’s social play behavior” (Xu, 2008, p.490). More recent research has found the only correction to Parten’s findings is that age doesn’t seem to be a predictor of play stage as Parten had originally observed (Xu, 2008).

Stages of Play

Note: based on (Parten, 1932), (Xu, 2010), and (Rymanowicz, 2015, October 6)

It’s important to note, however, that although they are called stages of play Parten (1932) observed that the stages were less like steps to the ‘next stage’ but, rather, that they were more fluid. This means that throughout their play scenarios you can observe young humans exhibiting each of the stages at any given time, variations of stages, and/or combinations of stages throughout a play scenario. For example, it is not uncommon to observe a young human engaging in parallel play and then later playing independently or a young human working cooperatively with others and also playing their own scenario within their cooperative play.

Here are some visual examples of the play stages that I've observed:

In the video below, a separate intent but desire for similar materials without apparent organization of play creates a conflict (the beginnings of associated play) which they negotiate and move out of while still engaging in separate play scenarios:

Play is a way for young humans to gain and practice skills in an interest-based and engaging experience, whether they be the social skills such as cooperating, compromising, or problem solving; language skills such as negotiation or linguistics; or gross motor skills such as balancing, climbing or running. Being aware of the stages of play helps you to provide materials and experiences appropriate to their individual development. It also helps you set expectations as caregivers for what a young human is capable of doing and what they are working on accomplishing. However, they will be unable to work on or practice these developmental skills if they are not given the time to do so. So, in the end, it's up to you as advocates for your young human to ensure they have these experiences by providing them with uninterrupted time to practice these skills by allowing them the time and space to just play, without interruptions, without corrections, and without shame.

Concerned about your role in play and how to support learning through play? Keep an eye out for a future blog post, we'll include a link here when it's uploaded!


Parten, M. B. (1932). Social participation among pre-school children. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 27(3), 243-269.

Rymanowicz, K. (2015, October 19). The power of play – Part 2: Born to play. In Michigan State University - MSU Extension. Retrieved from

Rymanowicz, K. (2015, October 6). The power of play - Part 1: Stages of play. In Michigan State University - MSU Extension. Retrieved from

Pramling Samuelsson, I. & Asplund Carlsson, M. (2008) The Playing Learning Child: Towards a pedagogy of early childhood, Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 52(6), 623-641.

Xu, Y. (2010) Children’s social play sequence: Parten’s classic theory

revisited,Early Child Development and Care, 180(4), 489-498.

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