collaboration | Nov 29, 2023

Unoccupied Play: What It Is, Benefits & More

By Blue Squirrel Team

Unoccupied Play: What It Is, Benefits & More


What Is Unoccupied Play?


There are six different stages of play a child can participate in. Unoccupied play is simply playing with the absence of structure or task. Rather than participating in a goal-oriented activity, unoccupied play time allows children to observe and explore what is around them. 


This concept was outlined by Mildred Parten, sociologist and expert in early childhood education; unoccupied play is the first of six stages of play.


These stages unfold as the child develops. The different types of play in order are: 


  • Unoccupied play: when a child explores or observes without structure

  • Solitary play: when a child entertains themselves independently with little regard for those around them.

  • Onlooker play: when a child actively observes other children playing without joining in.

  • Parallel play: when a child plays side-by-side with peers but without much social interaction. 

  • Associative play: when children begin to focus more on the social interaction aspect of play rather than the object, task, or activity at hand.

  • Cooperative play: when children play cooperatively with a set of rules and put in effort together. They practice things such as taking turns, sharing, and losing. 


These stages become increasingly complex as the child ages, with unoccupied being the simplest. If an infant is exploring toys or objects around them with no real direction or activity, they are participating in unoccupied play. 


When Does Unoccupied Play Occur?


When newborns move their arms and legs to explore the world around them, we don’t often think of these involuntary movements as playing. However, that’s exactly what they are doing! They are participating in the first stage: unoccupied play. 


When babies observe and explore a toy or item and recognize it without really interacting with it further, they are demonstrating unoccupied play. This type of activity begins as early as zero to three months of age. 


We don’t necessarily need to plan for unoccupied play, as it is a natural instinct for babies to begin doing this, but there are ways to encourage it. As parents, we can facilitate unoccupied play in a number of ways. This is not something we generally partake in as adults, but giving a child the freedom to explore without a set objective can make a significant difference in their growth. 


Ways to aid unoccupied play include:


  • Tummy time

  • Baths

  • Rocking

  • Outdoor time (walks in the stroller, laying on a blanket in the grass, etc.)

  • Baby holding/wearing


When creating opportunities for unoccupied play, it is a good idea to have some toys around with no real direction given. Toys that make noises, like rattles, bells, or musical instruments, enhance this experience even more.


What Are the Hallmarks of Unoccupied Play?


There is no organization, set task, or structured activity associated with unoccupied play. Some examples are looking around at toys, splashing in the water, or kicking or reaching for a dangling toy. These motions may look random or sporadic, but they are indicators of unoccupied play.


Random movements are the most prominent hallmark of unoccupied play. Picking up or exploring a rattle without continuing to play with it is an excellent illustration of what this may look like. It is a more passive type of play.


Rather than intentional motions, unoccupied play is something that happens more internally as children observe the world around them and explore objects. There is not much lengthy interaction. Instead, there is a cursory acknowledgment of the object before moving on to the next.


Unoccupied play may include the actions of reaching, kicking, splashing, smiling at something, or rolling toward something. If the interaction with the object grows further than observation and acknowledgment, it becomes the next stage: solitary play.


What Stage Comes After Unoccupied Play?


Once a child starts engaging with toys, they enter the next stage of play. Solitary play occurs when a baby or child plays independently without engaging with an adult or a peer.


Solitary play (also called “independent play”) begins between ages zero to two years, but that is a guideline, not a hard and fast rule. This stage starts before children engage in social interaction with others, but when they have reached certain milestones to develop the necessary attention span and fine motor skills necessary to use toys. 


For a baby, solitary play may look like laying on a play mat and interacting with the toys on it, splashing in the bath and playing with a toy boat, or holding a rattle while shaking it and laughing. In older children, examples of unoccupied play may include coloring by themselves, playing independently in an outdoor playhouse, or reading a book alone.


What Are the Benefits of Unoccupied Play?


Physically, unoccupied play encourages gross and fine motor skills. Mentally, it nurtures cognitive skills, problem-solving capabilities, and early language skills. 


Unoccupied Play Is Important for Children's Development


In general, unoccupied play lays the foundation for all other types of play: learning, intellectual development, social skills, and emotional growth. We can provide opportunities for unoccupied playtime to establish our child’s curiosity. In fact, “free play” or unstructured time boosts curiosity, creativity, and imagination. 


As caregivers, it is natural to want to encourage children to engage or complete a task while playing. However, this freedom of exploration is a major part of babies' cognitive development. They are learning so much without “completing” any single task. 


This play category provides opportunities to experience new sensations, develop motor skills, and motivate the baby to explore their immediate vicinity. It also helps them connect the dots in understanding how their intentions can translate into physical movement. The latter is the basis for gross motor skills, which will later translate into fine motor skills (the ability to hold a pencil or button a shirt). 


Unoccupied Play Allows Children To Explore Their Surroundings


Newborn babies are just beginning to notice the world around them. Unoccupied play is how they observe their environment and discover their home, family, and community. They begin to perceive texture, reflection, noise, and more. 


Unoccupied play builds a sense of curiosity and allows a child to wonder what they can do with nearby materials and objects. They recognize that different things are around them, filling up their space. Infants discover what their home or room looks like, what their parents’ facial features look like, and what the difference between people and objects is. Lastly, they establish a sense of “normal” for their growing bodies.


During the unoccupied stage, babies learn that they can find comfort in familiar people and spaces, that toys are meant to be used, that water makes a fun splash, and that certain things make particular sounds. Sensory experiences are often a significant part of this — bathtime, textured teething rings, rattles, and more are key. 


Unoccupied Play Helps Children Develop Problem-Solving Skills


Unoccupied play aids in a child’s ability to recognize and eventually build up problem-solving skills. They may realize that they cannot reach certain items or something does not work the way they think it will.


This is the first time a child may recognize obstacles and cultivate persistence. This is the groundwork for resilience, trying failed actions repeatedly until the desired outcome is reached. 


Unoccupied Play Helps Children Learn Self-Control and Regulation


Early life experiences teach critical strengths like emotional regulation and self-control. When a child is learning problem-solving skills and facing obstacles or disappointment, they are simultaneously learning how to self-regulate.


Instead of an emotional outburst, they may use their new problem-solving skills to self-soothe and find a solution. This foundation is built through unoccupied play and further developed in the five other stages. 


Unoccupied Play Helps Children Build Self-Confidence


The transition between unoccupied and solitary play establishes a feeling of self-confidence. When a baby observes the world and makes the shift to begin interacting, they are building the confidence that they can do something themselves. 


This builds independence and confidence, allowing younger children to experiment with their physical abilities and how their movements affect the environment. This self-confidence is further enhanced when social skills come into play.


The process of trial and error is crucial in the formation of problem-solving, self-control, and self-confidence. For example, imagine a baby spotting a shiny, bouncy ball just out of reach. When they’re unable to grasp it themselves, eventually, they’ll successfully roll over so they can grab it. The knowledge that they can solve their own problems is the foundation for confidence. 


While young children meet milestones in physical growth, they move through the stages of play. The problems they face motivate them to reach the next milestone. 


A Final Word on Unoccupied Play


While subtle in appearance, unoccupied play is crucial. Babies start to form a complex understanding of their surroundings and abilities, developing critical skills during this time. With this unstructured freedom to explore, babies are in a better spot to successfully continue through the five other stages of play.


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