What Is Associative Play? Here Are Some Benefits And Examples

by Team Scary Mommy
Originally Published: 
associative play, two girls playing in fall leaves
Michael Morse/Pexels

Looking for more examples of play in babies, toddlers, and preschoolers? Check out our package with more information on solitary play, onlooker play, parallel play, and cooperative play.

Remember back in preschool and kindergarten, when our report cards would include things like “follows directions” and “plays well with others,” and you were usually graded via a system of checks, pluses and minuses? Us too (and we definitely did not adjust our own report cards by turning check-minuses into check-pluses before showing our parents). Unfortunately, a lot of adults deserve a check-minus for their ability to “play well with others.” And believe it or not, there are actually six different stages of play, which were developed by American sociologist Dr. Mildred Parten Newhall in 1929. One of these stages is associative play, which is a form of child interaction that is not completely direct but does include a mild level of communication and engagement between toddlers. Here’s what associative play involves, along with some benefits and examples of it.

The six stages of play

If you take a look at kids interacting on a playground or in a daycare and lump everything they’re doing together as “play,” you may be interested to learn that there are actually six distinct stages of play. These were developed by Parten Newhall as part of her doctoral dissertation, which she finished in 1929 and went on to publish in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology in 1932. Not only was Parten Newhall one of the first researchers to seriously study play, her stages are still regularly referenced today, more than 70 years later.

Parten Newhall’s six stages of play include:

  • Unoccupied play
  • Solitary (or independent) play
  • Onlooker play
  • Parallel play
  • Associative play
  • Cooperative play

These stages take various factors into consideration, including a child’s age, mood, and social setting. And while her research focused on children between the ages of two and five, it’s important to keep in mind that every child develops at their own pace, meaning that there’s no “normal” play behavior for all three-year-olds, for example. Here, we’re going to focus on associative play for toddlers and preschoolers. Here’s what you need to know.

What is associative play?

Parallel play and associative play may look the same, but associative play is the more advanced stage of play. In parallel play, children often do the same activity as others around them, but entirely on their own with little or no interaction with other kids. Associative play signifies a shift in the child, according to Michigan State University. Rather than simply playing side-by-side with other kids, associative play involves some type of interaction between them. They’re not yet to the point of working together to achieve a common goal, but they’re also no longer completely in their own little world. Associative play, while still mostly a solo activity, can involve the children observing each other, and maybe even exchanging a few words.

What are the benefits of associative play?

As a parent, watching your kiddo start with associative play can be really interesting (and adorable). Their focus isn’t solely on themselves and their caregivers anymore, and they’re starting to learn how they fit in beyond their family unit. Some of the benefits of associative play include:

  • Teaches kids about cooperation
  • Assists with brain development
  • Prepares kids for the social-emotional readiness they need when they go to school
  • Problem solving and conflict resolution, specifically, learning how to:
  • Work in groups
  • Share
  • Negotiate
  • Solve problems
  • Advocate for themselves

Bonus? Research suggests that associate play benefits children not only now, but also in the future. It helps your little one build resiliency to face and overcome setbacks and potential hardships. And while it’s no fun to think about your child enduring difficulties, it’s comforting to know that this type of play will give them tools to best face such a situation.

Associate play is also the start of active behavior with other children. Most toddlers are chunky (and it’s absolutely adorable, we’re not complaining) but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be breaking a sweat every now and then. Nothing keeps a toddler more active than another toddler. With the added boost of communication and engagement that associative play demands, your little one will keep moving and get their blood pumping. Such activity increases their health and helps them avoid child obesity. When two tikes get together during this stage, their energy varies. It’s important for your child to not only engage in this mental and social exercise but also reap the physical benefits.

What are some examples of associative play?

Associative play isn’t necessarily something that can be set up intentionally, given that it depends on the extent to which the kids interact. But because it’s one small step away from parallel play, the same type of arrangement would work, where there are multiple options for kids to play alone or with each other in the same general area. A few specific examples of associative play include:

  • Kids riding scooters or tricycles next to one another, but without any sort of coordinated plan (including a destination).
  • Building towers of blocks without any sort of plan or competition.
  • Working on an art project together and sharing materials and perhaps a single canvas, but still letting the kids each do their own thing without attempting a theme or desired outcome.
  • Playing dress-up.
  • Working in a play kitchen on their own “meals”
  • Kids playing on the same playground and using the same jungle gym but not playing directly with one another.
  • A dance party that isn’t a competition or in sync.
  • Riding bikes together.
  • Running around in the same space with no intention of outrunning or catching the other child.

Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that when your child is ready to start interacting with (or even just observing) other kids, they will, and ideally, are enjoying the process of getting there.

This article was originally published on