When your baby transitions into toddlerhood, you’ll start to notice some changes in the way he plays. He once was content playing alone or with you, but he’ll now begin to watch what other children do and figure out how he might be able to join in.
Don’t worry – he’ll still love playing with you, too! But this stage of learning to play together with peers is a crucial part of social-emotional development.
Stages of Toddler Play
From babyhood to school age, your little one is consistently learning how to play cooperatively with others. To learn more about play from babyhood through age 2, head over to our article about the stages of play for months 0-24. At age 2, your toddler will begin to show more interest in playing with others and sharing common goals through play.
Around Age 2 — “Parallel Play”
Around their second birthday, toddlers progress from playing alone to playing alongside other children – but not actually with them. They may sit beside each other playing with toy cars, occasionally observing each other or talking, but not playing a cooperative game like a car race.
Around 30 Months – “Associative Play”
When toddlers move closer to their third birthday, they’ll begin paying more attention to, and showing more interest in, what other children are doing. They may start interacting a bit more with each other, like talking to another child that’s playing with similar toys, too, without necessarily playing with that child.
This stage of play is when you see basic sharing start. Your toddler might give a crayon to another child who’s coloring at the same table, for example. Associative play is especially important for early negotiation and problem-solving skills.
Between 36 and 48 Months – “Cooperative Play”
Looking ahead, cooperative play usually begins to emerge around age 3, but it may not become more refined until ages 4 ½ to 5. During this time, children play together with a specific purpose. They might work together to build a house with LEGOs or play a board game.
Cooperative play is usually more organized than earlier stages of play as children learn how to create a plan and work toward it through their play. They establish rules, objects, and symbols to use during play. Although sharing usually becomes easier during this stage, you might still see some disagreements when personalities clash.
Encouraging Age-Appropriate Play
Your toddler’s personality and temperament are unique, so he might approach these stages a little differently than others and along his own timeline. However, if he’s showing no interest in interactive play with his peers by 2 ½, you may want to ask your pediatrician about what you can do to guide him.
When your toddler is around his peers, you can encourage him to participate in associative play by sitting with him near other children. You might share a toy with another child or ask the child questions about what he’s doing. Your toddler will watch, and eventually mimic, your interactions.
Be sure to give him special one-on-one playtime with you, too, as part of his daily routine. Although he’s learning how to cooperate with others, you’re still his most important teacher. Through your playtime, you can help him share, take turns, and give other valuable lessons that will carry over into his playdates.
Your toddler’s social-emotional skills are developing and fine-tuning themselves in a way that supports his play with others. Continue offering plenty of play opportunities to gauge and grow his interest in cooperative play.