While we may be well-versed on gross motor or language stages of development, the sequence unfolding in a child’s play is often overlooked.
It was Parten in the early 1930s who theorized that children progress through a series of six different types of play sequentially based on their maturity and social experiences. These stages include:
1. unoccupied play
2. solitary or independent play
3. onlooker play
4. parallel play
5. associative play, and
6. cooperative play
The final stage- cooperative play- tends to draw the most attention.
For cooperative play to unfold naturally, the child must be willing and able to let go of his own urges and desires, preferring instead to negotiate a middle ground where two or more may work together towards a common goal.
This is not something that can be taught by an adult. Rather it evolves over an individual’s personal uninterrupted cumulative play experiences with himself, his family, and the groups with which he is associated.
The disagreement in Parten’s Play Stage Theory lies in whether these stages evolve in sequence- for if they were, it would be uncommon to witness something like Toddler Cooperative Play. Cooperative Play activities are often reserved for the more mature elementary age child who has developed the ability to self-regulate to this complexity.
Yet, when children have grown up together in the center under the gentle guidance of a Primary Caregiver, we witness these cooperative play activities much earlier. Toddlers who are not only cared for by one primary adult, but who also have remained in consistent peer groups over an extended time, demonstrate the natural aptitude for cooperative play much earlier than the anticipated six year bench mark.
Without adult pressure to “share” and without redirection to adult guided activities, children supported in free, uninterrupted play activities evolve through the play sequence at a seemingly accelerated rate. This cooperative model amongst peers translates to the child’s desire and interest to work cooperatively with the adult- be it in a caregiving, academics, or simply keeping the classroom peace
“We can hope that men will understand that the interest of all are the same, that hope lies in cooperation. We can then perhaps keep PEACE.”