Children grow and develop very quickly in the first few years of their lives. They go through exponential cognitive growth while learning so much physically, like walking, talking, grabbing, and playing. Like with other developments, playing involves several stages that every child will go through at some point in the first few years of life.
In this article, we will cover one of the stages of play: associative play. We will discuss what it is, how it is beneficial to your child's growth, and how you can encourage them to use this new skill when playing alone and with others.
What Is Associative Play?
Associative play is the fifth stage of play out of six, succeeding parallel play and preceding cooperative play. When participating in associative play, children will play the same games, use the same equipment, and participate in the same activities.
However, they will not be moving towards the same goals. Instead, children will continue to play independently of each other but will observe and imitate each other, ultimately working off of each other to develop new ideas.
This stage of play typically begins around age three, but it can develop either earlier or later; children all develop in their own time. Interestingly, children don’t lose the ability to use associative play. Instead, it continues to build upon the foundation of cognitive and social skills as they age.
What Are the Benefits of Associative Play?
Associative play affects much more than just observation and imitation. In fact, it does help to develop communication and cooperation with peers before they actively engage in it. Because children are indirectly working together and sharing toys, associative play also helps kids begin to monitor their own behavior and adapt to others’ needs and expectations.
Since kids are now recognizing how their actions affect others and how to communicate with them, associative play is incredibly beneficial to language development, self-regulation, and involvement in classroom activities. In fact, studies have shown that increased involvement in social activities helps boost mathematics, self-regulation, and language skills.
What Are Examples of Associative Play?
Associative play can appear anywhere in a group setting. One of the most common examples is several children using the same playground equipment to play.
All the children could be running around a playset and might even be talking to each other, but that’s where the interactions will likely stop. Children in the associative play stage will probably be moving towards independent goals rather than a common goal set by the group.
Other examples of associative play include loose equipment — items or objects children can take with them into a play area. Typically, loose equipment is multipurpose, or children can find multiple uses for the toys that they choose.
In this case, examples of loose equipment include dress-up clothes, sports balls, ropes, blocks, and arts-and-crafts materials. With all of these activities, children will have somewhat limited access to materials and will be required to share and communicate. Sharing will encourage social interaction and help them learn how to adapt and be patient with others (and with themselves).
How Can Adults Encourage Associative Play?
While children pick and choose when associative play calls to them, there are several ways to encourage them to engage in associative play. Caregivers can try to provide as many opportunities for group play as possible when kids are beginning to pick up the idea of associative play.
In this way, we are essentially setting the scene for your child to explore the world and the people around them.
Avoid Asserting Your Expectations
One of the first things that we as parents tend to do when we see our children do something new is trying to show them the proper way of doing the activity. However, this does nothing to help improve your child’s understanding of the activity and can even cause game-ending frustration.
We need to step back and let our children decide what it is they want to do and how they want to do it when it comes to playing.
By giving our kids control of play style, they learn to recognize their wants and desires and how to act on and voice them. It gives them a challenge they must learn to overcome: creating a fun and engaging environment while learning at a developmentally appropriate pace.
Support and Guide
While kids do need to learn how to handle situations independently to appropriately develop their problem-solving skills and confidence, they will need help along the way.
By being involved in the process, you can be there to offer help and support during a difficult time or an unfamiliar experience. As children grow, they become more aware of life’s complexities. They need a solid support system behind them to learn how to navigate out of feeling stuck.
However, sometimes children just need a quick idea tossed their way, some new inspiration, or a new environment to play in. In these cases, you aren’t doing much aside from simply participating, but it is usually in these moments where children do their most learning. They are confident in their abilities to build off of the ideas given to them and execute their new vision.
Set Up Interactive Spaces and Activities
When children play in a group setting, you can encourage them to play together either associatively or cooperatively by doing a few different things. One way for adults to set the stage is to reduce the spaces available when the kids have free play time.
By limiting their choices in the spaces they can play, the children will have to interact with one another in the areas that they do have. They will need to develop new ways to navigate the number of people in the space and learn to handle all of the information they are gathering around so many peers.
You can also encourage small group or partner work in at-home or classroom settings. To further help encourage associative play, limit the number of similar materials so that the kids are required to share. Verbally point out and celebrate instances of sharing; children, like adults, thrive off positive feedback. This will help encourage more efficient communication and teamwork as the kids get older.
Modeling and celebrating sharing is a little tricky for two-year-olds, but around three years, the notion of taking turns and the necessity of sharing is far more accessible.
Be a Model
The best way to teach kids how to do something or say something is by being an example. Modeling the behavior that you want strongly entices children to imitate you. Plus, it can significantly help kids better grasp the concepts you are trying to teach.
You can reach and model respectful talking and listening skills, provide positive feedback, and demonstrate the rules when it comes to introducing formal games or activities.
Associative play is one of six stages of play that is more of a stepping stone between parallel play and cooperative play. While children may interact with one another during this stage of play, they more often than not continue to play independently, but they still look to others for new ideas or inspiration.
This isn’t a skill that they grow out of, either. Instead, it creates a foundation for future skills and activities. As adults, the best thing we can do is model the behavior we want to see and stay involved in our kids’ activities. Support them as they learn and encourage them to play with others as much as you possibly can — and don’t forget to get in on the fun yourself!
Promoting Associative and Cooperative Interactions | Metro Nashville Public Schools Pre-K Partnership Project
Let’s Play: Stages of Play and Appropriate Activities for Each | VA Infant & Toddler Specialist Network
The power of play – Part 1: Stages of play | Michigan State University
Sharing and learning to share | Raising Children Network