Navigating the 6 Stages of Play

Baby lying down playing with loose parts | Navigating the Six Stages of Play with Your Child with Loose Parts

Navigating the Six Stages of Play with Your Child with Loose Parts

Thank you to our guest author, Angela Stone, ProjectPlay

As parents, we’ve all marvelled at the way our children play and grow. Play is not just fun; it’s a fundamental aspect of their learning and development. In fact, did you know there are six distinct stages of play, each contributing to your child’s learning and growth.

As children progress through these stages, they acquire essential social skills that enable them to interact with others effectively.

In this blog, we’ll take a fun and informative journey through these stages and offer tips on how you can support and engage with your child’s play at each step.

The 6 Stages of Play

Stage 1: Unoccupied Play

Surprisingly, play starts right from birth! Those seemingly random infant movements you witness are the beginnings of play. To encourage loose parts play at this stage, introduce your baby to explore a heuristic set with monochrome, high-contrast objects to aid their visual development. Play peek-a-boo with a soft scarf or Playsilk, and place intriguing objects just out of their reach to ignite their curiosity and promote free movement.

Stage 2: Solitary Play

Solitary play begins in infancy and is a common phase in toddlers. During this stage, children play independently, seemingly oblivious to others around them. It’s a time of exploration and self-discovery. Heuristic sets with various objects are excellent companions for infants and young toddlers during this phase. They’ll pick up, turn over, mouth, throw, and bang objects as they experiment and learn about their world. Support their need for discovery by providing a safe environment filled with intriguing items.

Stage 3: Onlooker Play

Onlooker play often surfaces during the toddler years but can emerge at any age. In this stage, children watch others play but refrain from participating. They may be shy, unsure of the rules, or hesitant to join in. Loose parts can be an invitation to play for these children. Since there are no right or wrong ways to use them, children in this stage are more likely to transition to the next stage, where they engage with others. Ensure a wide range of loose parts is available, including multiples of certain items, like a basket of rings, to encourage interaction.

Stage 4: Sensory-Motor Play

Birth to two years is marked by sensory-motor play, where children use their senses and motor skills to explore their surroundings. Incorporate textured balls, sensory bags, and manipulative toys into play to stimulate their senses and develop fine and gross motor skills. It’s a sensory wonderland where children learn through touch, sight, and sound.

Stage 5: Symbolic Play

From around ages two to four, children enter the world of symbolic play. They use objects to represent other things and engage in imaginative play. Loose parts like blocks, fabric, and natural materials help create imaginary worlds and encourage storytelling. It’s a stage filled with creativity as they transform everyday items into magical treasures.

Stage 6: Creative Play

Between ages four and seven, children explore different materials and use them in creative ways. This stage is all about thinking outside the box and discovering the possibilities. Loose parts like recyclables, art supplies, and natural materials become tools for artistic expression, building structures, and other creative endeavours.

As your child grows, so does their play. Embrace each stage as a unique opportunity for learning and development. Whether it’s exploring textures, imagining new worlds, or collaborating with peers. So, join in the fun and watch as your child’s playful journey unfolds, one stage at a time.


Inspired by a desire to replace plastic toys with “real” play items for open-ended play, Angela Stone launched ProjectPlay, a family-run New Zealand business that helps parents explore the benefits of heuristic play,and ignite the imaginations of their children. Heuristic play is all about supporting curiosity, wonder, imagination and free exploration. 
Working alongside her husband Jono, they provide families with open-ended play items, allowing children to select, explore, manipulate and compare items with each other, while engaging in their own learning through play
At ProjectPlay, they value real, authentic play experiences for children. Inspired by Montessori, Rudolph Steiner and Pikler philosophies, they also support the theory of loose parts, offering quality, eco-friendly play items to ignite the imagination.
Use code: MUDMATES10 for 10% off the entire ProjectPlay range



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