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3 uncommon theories of play you might not know about

In the early childhood education world, there are many theories of play. In this post, we will be exploring three of these theories: Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Theory, Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Developmental Theory, and Mildred Parten’s Social Behaviour Theory.

Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Theory

Urie Bronfenbrenner examined how environmental influences contribute to a child’s play. He focused on five environmental systems during the first five years of a child’s life. The five environmental systems include:


The child’s family influences children’s play.


The relationships and interactions between the educator and family influence children’s play.


Policies in early childhood influence children’s play.


A child’s community, culture and beliefs influence children’s play.


The environment and timing of events influence children’s play.

Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Developmental Theory

Jean Piaget focused on the cognitive development of children, which means the way children process information and problem solve. Cognitive development refers to reasoning, thinking and understanding. Cognitive development is important for knowledge growth. The cognitive domain includes: cause-and-effect, spatial relationships, problem-solving, imitation, memory, number sense, classification, and symbolic play.

Children participate in three distinct stages of play:

Functional/Sensorimotor Play

Age: Birth to age 2

Children use simple and repetitive movements with objects, people and sounds during play. For example, shaking shakers during music time. They are using their senses and physical abilities to move around and explore their environment.

Symbolic/Dramatic Play

Age: 2 to 7

Children begin to express themselves using their imagination and curiosity, and take on various roles during play. For example, pretending to be a firefighter putting out a fire using a stick found outside in the playground. Children are beginning to imitate actions and language of others that are around them.

Games with rules

Age: school-aged children

Children negotiate the rules before they engage in a play experience or activity. For example, playing hide and seek. Children are collaborating and cooperating with others.

Mildred Parten’s Social Behaviour Theory

Mildred Parten examined play from a social behaviour perspective. She identified that play progresses through a series of stages, through five types of play:

Solitary play

Children play independently and alone during play experiences and activities. There is a limited amount or no interaction with other children or materials that another child may be playing with.

Parallel play

Children begin to either play independently or beside or across from other peers – they do not play with others.

Associative play

Children begin to share play materials and participate in similar activities of others around them.

Cooperative play

Children participate in group play, collaborating with one another and working toward a common goal. For example, creating a building with blocks and each child takes on different roles to build it. Cooperative play emerges in the early preschool years.

Unoccupied behaviour

This is when children are not engaged in play and wander around play areas without a purpose. They may follow others while engaged in their own behaviour. For example, hair twirling and getting on and off of chairs.

Onlooker play

Children observe other children or adults in play but do not become involved in the play. The child sits or stands within speaking distance of another child. Children may use this strategy to make suggestions, ask questions, learn about materials or determine how they may participate in a play experience. They do not enter into the play of others.

Play is an important part of children’s learning and development. All of the theories we discussed are focused on children’s play through: examining how the environment influences child’s play (e.g. family), how children process and problem solve during play (e.g. symbolic/dramatic play), and how children’s play happens through a series of stages (e.g. parallel play).

If you’re an early childhood educator, HiMama can help you keep track of children’s progress through play and share these moments with parents! 

3 uncommon theories of play

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