How to support childhood development through age-appropriate play

While a toddler who is considered ‘advanced’ for their age is often a source of pride for parents or typically seen as a sign of higher intellect or development in a child, there is a great deal of merit in ensuring a child engages with activities, toys and even screen time that is appropriate to their age and stage of development.

To fully appreciate the importance of age-appropriate play, it’s important to take a step back to understand why the simple act of playing is important in the first place. According to results from the LEGO® Play Well Study, a 2022 global survey on play conducted by The LEGO Group, nearly all South African parents who were surveyed believed that play can help their child develop essential skills for future success and well-being, such as creativity (93%), communication (92%), problem-solving (92%) or confidence (91%). ​

“Play in its simplest and most instinct led form, which could be as straightforward as cartwheels in the garden or wrestling with a parent, benefits children not just because it builds fond memories with loved ones, but because children learn as they play,” says Miroslav Riha, LEGO® South Africa Country Manager. “As children grow, their developmental needs evolve, and their play should too.”

Parten’s Six Stages of Play

Researcher Mildred Parten at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development identified six clear stages of play in children between birth and four years and above.

Stage one, which is between birth and three months of age, is termed ‘Unoccupied Play’, where a baby will simply make movements with their hands and feet in the process of learning how their bodies move and work. At this stage, the best way to engage baby is through touch, such as massaging their bodies before bed. Tummy time is also a great form of play at this age.

Stage two, termed ‘Solitary Play’, includes toddlers between three months and two years old. Here, children tend mainly to play by themselves, and are not yet interested in playing with others just yet. During this stage, parents and caregivers can introduce bright, colourful toys that are easy to grasp and operate for little hands and fingers, such as board books and sensory play items.

Stage three is the ‘Spectator/Onlooker Behaviour’ period for children at the age of two to three years old. This stage is characterised by children learning to observe other children playing without engaging in group play themselves. While it can be tempting to ‘force’ or encourage children to play with others at this stage, parents and caregivers would do better to leave them be as they learn social cues and how to navigate the boundaries of others. Simply standing nearby to reassure them while they observe and continue to play by themselves is perfectly fine.

Children between the ages of three to four years old will now begin to engage in ‘Parallel Play’ – they’re playing alongside peers, but still by themselves. It is essential to provide them with plenty of age-appropriate toys and activities at this stage that can easily be shared between two children without a battle ensuing of who the toy belongs to. A box full of LEGO® DUPLO® bricks is a great example of a toy that children can play with independently while playing ‘around’ others. In this process they are also learning the beginnings of social skills, which they will use to engage and form relationships with others later in childhood.

‘Associative Play’ is the fifth stage in the six stages of play and starts at around three years of age. This is a pivotal stage in a child’s overall development as it’s where their social skills truly start to take shape as they delve into playing with others and not just on their own anymore. At this stage, riding bikes or building age-appropriate LEGO sets together are the most effective as it gives children the opportunity to apply the knowledge, they’ve observed about playing with others through their younger years and learn how to engage with peers. All these activities also boost creativity; children can make up their own fun games or use LEGO bricks to bring an idea in their heads to life.

The final stage, known as ‘Co-operative Play’, sees children aged four and above work together through play to reach a common goal. This often culminates in pretend play where children take on imaginary roles (for example, in a restaurant scene as a waiter or patron). They may also make up their own fun group games to enjoy together – the sky is the limit. Parents and caregivers play an important role in this stage and should gently guide children on how to play together, for example, by providing board games or encouraging them to build structures using readily available materials.

Supporting children through the various stages of play with age-appropriate toys, activities and approaches helps them develop physically, cognitively, and emotionally. It’s important to understand and plan how to facilitate play at every age of childhood so that little ones can reap as much benefit from the simple, instinctive act of play as possible.



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