Associative Play: What Is It, Age, Examples And Benefits

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Toddlers begin participating in activities with other children their age between the ages of three and four. They will be more concerned with the other children or the object involved in the game than with the activity itself. Associative play is the name for this type of game. Also, you’ll observe that there isn’t any interaction between the toddlers in these group activities, nor is there any organization to obtain a shared goal (1) (2). It’s a wonderful sight to witness your toddlers interact with one another. This early period of social engagement also aids your toddler in reaching critical developmental milestones. In this post, we discuss what associative play is and how it benefits toddlers while also explaining, in brief, the six stages of play during childhood.

Stages Of Play

Mildred Bernice Parten Newhall, a researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, developed the theory of six stages of play that children experience. Associative play falls into the fifth category. Let’s learn about each of these stages (2) (3).

  1. Unoccupied play (0–3 months old): The baby only observes and does not play in this stage. They may make some movements and learn how their body moves.
  1. Solitary play (0–2 years old): The baby starts playing alone and concentrating on activities, such as playing with building blocks.

    Playing alone develops sense of independence

    Image: iStock

  1. Onlooker play (2 years old): The baby begins to gain interest in others playing around but only watches them and does not interact with them.
  1. Parallel play (2–3 years old): The child starts playing near others, but not with them. They may play alone and, sometimes, imitate the actions of other children around them.
  1. Associative play (3–4 years old): The child begins to develop an interest in people around them. The child may do the same activity as other children, but there will be very little interaction and no organization.
  1. Cooperative play (4+ years old): The child is involved in communication and takes an active part in the activity at hand. There is cooperative play, organization, and teamwork.
Point to ponder
Your child can develop through playing in an enjoyable and appropriate setting, which you may provide. So always take care of the environment you are creating for them.

Examples Of Associative Play

Associate play involves sharing toys

Image: iStock

The following are some examples of activities that children usually indulge in during associative play. 

  • Building a tower of blocks without planning and competition
  • Sharing the same playground and using the same play equipment, such as slides, swings, merry-go-rounds, and climbers
  • Cycling next to other children without choosing a destination
  • Playing dress-up for a Halloween party or pirate-themed party
  • Sharing a play kitchen and using play utensils, toys, etc.
  • Painting or doing other craft art using the same material, but not commenting on each other’s work or completing the art together
  • Playing with the same toy without chatting with each other
  • Doing activities such as puzzles or connect-the-dots in preschool
  • Dancing at a party without any competition with each other
  • Eating their meals together during recess
  • Forming a line to go to the washroom
  • Running around in a circle without a motive to catch each other
  • Playing on the playground without communication, however taking turns

Benefits Of Associative Play 

Your child is no longer in their own world in the associative play stage. Their world is expanding as they start including people other than their caregivers into their lives. Associative play can help children develop valuable skills and learn important values. Here are some benefits of associative play (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10).

  1. Cooperation and sharing: Although your child may not be involved in putting in joint efforts needed to achieve a common goal at this stage, associative play encourages them to share common resources, such as a swing or slide, and prepares them to take part in group activities.

    Cooperation and sharing

    Image: iStock

  1. Respect and turn-taking: It can help them understand the importance of turn-taking and make them aware that there are certain rules for every activity and that these activities benefit the whole group. Also, as they play in a group setting, it could help them learn to respect each other.
  1. Problem-solving: The child starts exercising the skills they have learned during the onlooker play and parallel play stages. As they become more active during the associative play stage, they  learn to find solutions to their problems by doing things themselves, observing other children, or interacting with other children to a certain extent.

    Children solve problems during associative play

    Image: iStock

  1. Language development: It is the stage where children start to interact with others in a social setting. Children would try to verbalize their feelings, which can help develop their vocabulary and enable them to form simple sentences.
  1. Preparedness for school: The communication and friendship skills acquired at this stage can help your child get comfortable in school. Mingling with children of the same age group and learning how to share, take turns, and cooperate can help them transition into school without much difficulty. 
  1. Fitness: Participating in common activities with other children can make them more active. Staying active and taking part in physical activities can help develop their motor skills and strengthen their bones and muscles. 
  1. Brain development: Associative play helps boost their thinking capacity, concentration, imagination, cognition, and creativity. It is through play that children explore and make sense of the world around them. Taking part in activities can help stimulate their brain and engage their senses.
    Quick tip
    Do not push your child from day one to start participating in all the activities. Give them some time to settle in. Pushing and nagging them to share or to play with other kids might make them lose interest and dislike the activities.

    Associative plays boost brain development

    Image: iStock

The associative play marks the beginning of a child’s social skills when they observe how their peers play. However, there will be little or no interaction with other children in that phase. Cycling next to peers without knowing the destination, sharing the same play area, and sharing play equipment are examples of associative play. This indicates that your child is not in their world, and they begin to learn interactive and social skills. Associative play enhances language development, develops problem-solving abilities, and prepares a child to join the school. You may provide opportunities for your child to play next to their peers to enhance these developmental milestones.

Allow your child to explore the world around them. Don’t be possessive if you don’t find yourself grabbing all the attention of your toddler during this transition stage, as you will always be their favorite person. 

Infographic: Associative Play: Common Challenges And Tips To Deal With Them

While associative play is a great way to boost interaction and thinking abilities in toddlers and young children, it might present a few challenges. Here is an infographic that discusses the common concerns of associative play in children and how to deal with them.

managing concerns related to associative play [infographic]
Illustration: MomJunction Design Team

Key Pointers

  • Before learning to play associatively, children go through several stages of playing.
  • Indulging toddlers in associative play fosters a sense of sharing and cooperation.
  • Cycling with friends, roleplay activities with peers, and eating meals together are a few examples of associative play.

References:

MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
1. The power of play – Part 1: Stages of play; Michigan State University
2. How Kids Learn to Play: : 6 Stages of Play Development; Pathways
3. Let’s Play: Stages of Play and Appropriate Activities for Each; Virginia Infant & Toddler Specialist Network
4. Encouraging Different Stages of Play; Heart-Mind Community
5. Promoting Associative and Cooperative Interactions; Vanderbilt University
6. 7 Ways to Teach Cooperation in Early Childhood; Peace Learning Center
7. You Can Do It; Virginia Infant & Toddler Specialist Network
8. Not just child’s play: The relationship between play and language; Central Institute for the Deaf
9. Early Childhood Development: Physical Activity in Early Childhood; Novak Djokovic Foundation
10. The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds; Pediatrics
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