Benefits of Associative Play for Child Development?

Importance of Play

Associative play is a type of play in which a child plays side by side with other peers, they borrow and loan toys, but there is no common goal and no coordination between their actions. Any type of play is essential for child development as it is beneficial for their emotional, physical, cognitive, and social well-being. 

Through play children have the opportunity to interact with and explore the world, to form bonds with peers and family members, to engage in creative thinking and problem-solving, and to learn more about the adult world by imitating the grown-ups.

Play is important for humans as much as for animals. The children of many species engage in play without extrinsic reward, pointing to some type of developmental significance. 

Playing behaviour changes with age and context and ensures the organism is exposed to different kinds of experiences, which in turn influences the overall development of the brain. For example, juvenile rats who engaged in play were found to be more socially active in later years.

This was a result of a major brain area being influenced by play – the prefrontal cortex. As a result of playing, the prefrontal cortex is developed in such a way that it dampens the signal of the amygdala (responsible for fear) during further play. In this way, the animal is not scared of novel situations and learns faster.

Associative Play

Different types of play are developed as the child grows up and start to be more social and more interested in other individuals rather than objects. Research has shown that children use more sophisticated language when playing with peers compared to when speaking with adults.

Play induces a very high intrinsic motivation to achieve a rewarding goal which aids the development of communication skills. However not all types of play are social, and not always children want to participate in common activities. 

Classification of Play

Milden Parten Newhall was one of the first social scientists to acknowledge the importance of play for child development, and especially play in relation to different social contexts. Parten coined the term ‘associative play’ in her dissertation in 1929 alongside 5 more levels of play.

The theory ‘Parten’s stages of play’ was developed after the researcher spent time observing children and classifying their behavior into the following categories:

  • Unoccupied behavior. The child doesn’t play but watches anything that happens around him/her. If nothing interesting happens, the child plays with their own body, gets on and off chairs, follows the teacher, glances around the room
  • Onlooker. Most of the time is spent observing other children play. The child doesn’t enter the play but asks the other children questions and gives suggestions.
  • Solitary independent play (playing alone). The child plays on her/his own, without engaging with other children. Plays with toys that are not used by others and have his/her own goals.
  • Parallel activity. The child still plays on their own, but the activity they choose brings them closer to other children. The toys are like those of children who are close by, and there is no control over who comes and goes in the near proximity. The child is playing side-to-side, not with, others.
  • Associative play. This is the first type of social play in which children share toys, use the same environment, engage in similar activities and there is some rules about who enters and exits the play environment. However, there is no coordination and organization of the play. Every child does whatever he/she wishes. 
  • Cooperative or organized supplementary play. In this type of play, children play together, have a common goal, different roles with the aim to create a material object, or to dramatize the situation of adult life. One or two children direct the activity of others. 

The first three levels (unoccupied, onlooker and solitary play) are considered non-social types of play, whereas parallel, associative and cooperative indicate social activity. Parten studied 42 preschool children in the ages between 2 and 5 years.

She found that social play correlates positively with age, the older children are, the more they engage in social activities. Only the youngest children engaged in solitary play, whereas when it comes to associative play the most prevalent group was children between 4 and 4.5 years of age. 


Similar to other theories of children behaviour, it is debated whether children really progress through the different stages of play with age, or if they can sometimes jump from one level to another, independent of their age.

For example, it is prevalent for toddlers to want other babies’ toys, to interact with other children in the sandbox, or to hand objects to adults. Furthermore, it is not necessary for children to be underdeveloped if for example, at age 4 they prefer to play alone. In this case, they may just be more introverted, which is not a cause for concern.

Independence and Socialisation 

According to Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, children start off with an ‘egocentric’ mind in the ‘preoperational stage’. From the age of about 2 years, children are unable to understand that others have different thoughts, goals and points of view.

They see the world as revolving around them and are unable to understand that others may see, hear, or feel differently. The play is primarily parallel, children are in the same room but rarely interact with one another, don’t share toys, and are absorbed in their own worlds. 

In Piaget’s theory, however, the next stage starts at around 11-year olds (rather than age of 4 in Parten’s). It is the ‘concrete operational stage’ in which children are able to tell that others think and experience the world in a different way. With this new perspective-taking skill children even make decisions according to what others would think.

This allows for bearing in mind multiple factors when making a choice and requires higher cognitive capacity. It is the period when children learn to approach a problem with different perspectives and to evaluate the outcome.

In terms of play, the concrete operational stage is similar to associative play. Children are free to make their own choices and are able to organize their social play.

They decide who to enter and exit the game, they start assigning roles to others and are not afraid to express an opinion. Therefore, dynamic interaction with peers is essential in defining boundaries of what is allowed and how others would respond to the actions of the individual. 

‘Humans are social animals’ as Aristotle stated, so guiding your child to engage in associative play may be a good way to help them learn how to interact with others, how to share toys, and how to be leaders sometimes.

Associative play is especially the stage in which children can start getting used to playing alongside peers and at the same time keep their personal space and ability to disengage. This play is the transition between being completely independent and having to cooperate and negotiate to obtain a common goal. 

Why do children differ in their associative play? 

Social scientists are inconclusive when it comes to why some children tend to socialize more whereas others seem reluctant to share their toys or are shy to approach others. One suggestion was that socioeconomic status of the parents influences children’s play engagement. A study found that children of lower socioeconomic backgrounds engaged in less associative and cooperative, and more in solitary play.

However, a more recent study from 2006 found the opposite. Forty children between the ages of 3 and 5 were observed, and children from the lower-status backgrounds were almost twice as likely to participate in the associative play.

Moreover, boys of lower socioeconomic status and girls of high status were more likely to participate in the associative play. It is still unknown what those differences mean, but it points to the fact that equal opportunity for play should be provided and encouraged in preschool environments. 

Others have approached the issue by focusing on a child’s relationship to objects. Sharing behavior takes several years to learn and unless children have learned this skill, their social interactions won’t be very successful.

At around the age of 4, children start to learn that some things belong to other children and that if they lend a toy, they can get it back. Going back to Piaget’s stages of development, children are egocentrically oriented until a certain age.

Hence, it may be difficult to transition from owning everything to having to share with other children. Sharing involves trust, realization of reciprocity (‘if I lend my toy, I can borrow another more interesting one’), respecting others’ needs, and resolving conflict.

Children which are more trusting and empathetic may transition more easily into the stages of social play. In other cases, parents may help by explaining to children that, for example, if another child gets a toy first he/she can play with it later, some toys can be used by more than one child, and if children have the food they can be asked to share sometimes.

How to support children in associative play? 

Teacher nowadays are concerned that allowing too much room for play won’t leave time for the curriculum. It is necessary, however, to note that every child needs a certain amount of time to go through the stages of play and develop skills which cannot be learned through instruction.

Through associative and cooperative play, children learn more than what adults can teach them. As the great developmental psychologist, Vygotsky, proposed: 

‘play creates a zone of proximal development of the child. In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behaviour; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development.’

As exemplified in countries like Finland, which ranks on top places in Europe for academic success, preschool years are not for maths, grammar and writing. Children there don’t start school until the age of 7, and there is little education in the preceding years. Rather, the Finns have approached daycare in a manner of creative play. This created the social habit to make friends, respect others and be more outgoing. 

Hence, it may be important to let children play for longer in the early years as they need the time to go through multiple stages of play. Moreover, parents may think that it would be best to guide the child into playing in particular ways, but this may be more detrimental for development than helpful. Children rarely learn from instances when parents tell them how to play.

In the best way, following Vygotsky’s theory of the zone of proximal development, every child will go into the next stage if the time is right. So, parents and teachers should provide the nurturing environment necessary for the transition from one stage to another, rather than taking the lead in children’s play. 

‘Scaffolding’ is exactly this method of guiding children in their play, and it is very similar to associative play. The parent or teacher sits next to the child and plays with the same toy, this keeps the child’s attention on the object for longer and introduces an aspect of social interaction.

Another way would be for a teacher to enter the environment of a group of children and only subtly to try to give suggestions about what can be done. This would be a method to assist the transition from associative to cooperative play. 

To conclude, no matter the classifications of play, children need a certain amount of time playing in order to develop multiple skills and gain experience in life. Every child is different, and their stages of development are highly variable.

Most important is to let them play, interfere only if extremely necessary, and provide an opportunity for them to meet others and decide if they want to play with them, share their toys, or simply do different tasks side-by-side engaging in associative play.