What is Associative Play?

Ms. Bailey releases the children to recess and follows them outside to watch over them. While standing off to the side, she notices a group of children dance around the stack of sticks with stereotypical Indian calls. Ms. Bailey is observing something called associative play.

Associative play is a form of play in which a group of children participate in similar or identical activities without formal organization, group direction, group interaction, or a definite goal.

An example of associative play could be a group of children riding tricycles next to one another. They may talk and interact but there is no definite goal, leader, or organization of the activity.

Who Created Associative Play?

Mildred Parten Newhall created the “Stages of Play” theory in 1929. Parten observed groups of preschool children from ages 2 through 5 and created a sequence of 6 stages of play; Unoccupied, Solitary, Onlooker, Parallel, Associative, and Cooperative.

  • Unoccupied Play: Unoccupied play is when the child is not playing, just observing. In Unoccupied play, the child is learning about their world. They may do repeated movement over and over again while looking around.
  • Solitary Play: Solitary Play is when the child is alone and maintains focus on its activity. In Solitary Play, the child is learning about how things work and their ability to concentrate. They may construct building blocks together quietly.
  • Onlooker Play: Onlooker Play is when the child watches others at play but does not engage in it. In Onlooker Play, the child is starting to show interest in other children. They may talk about the game they are watching with others but they do not engage.
  • Parallel Play: Parallel Play is when the child plays separately from others but close to them and mimicking their actions. In Parallel Play, children are learning how to work alongside of other children. They may color pictures or be building a house of blocks right next to each other.
  • Associative Play: Associative Play is when the child is interested in the people playing but not in coordinating their activities with those people, or when there is no organized activity at all. In Associative Play, children are learning to be more interested in the children playing than the actual activity. They may all run around a circle together.
  • Cooperative Play: Cooperative Play is when a child is interested both in the people playing and in the activity they are doing. In Cooperative Play, the children are learning how to cooperate with each other. They may assign roles such as the mother or father in the game ‘House’.

In Parten’s theory, children start with more individualized play such as solitary and parallel, but as they get older they transition into more group play such as associative and cooperative.

Parten theorizes that this is because the older a child gets the more they improve their communication skills and the more opportunities for peer interaction occur.

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When Does Associative Play Begin and Why is it Important?

Associative play begins during toddler-hood and extends through preschool age. Associative play teaches the art of sharing, encourages language development, problem-solving skills and cooperation.

There are many benefits to this play, children learn to think, remember, and solve problems. Associative play gives children the opportunity to test their beliefs about the world. It allows children to be creative while developing their own imaginations.

Associative play allows a child to learn the skills of negotiation, problem solving and working within groups. Children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace and discover their own interests during this play. Unstructured play also may lead to more physical movement and healthier children.

Whereas infants and toddlers use their ability to symbolize in solitary play, preschoolers use their expanded cognitive and social abilities to play with their peers. In associative play there is communication concerns the common activity, borrowing and loaning of play materials, and mild attempts to control which children may or may not play in the group.

Unlike adults, preschool children are not able to verbalize how they feel. They experience the same feelings and express them through play. Because they feel safe in play, and because play is a primary activity in the preschool years, young children exhibit the full range of their feelings in associative play activities.

Freud (1935) proposed that play can be cathartic. Children use play to reduce anxiety and understand traumatic experiences. They may recreate an unpleasant experience over and over to assimilate it and diminish the intensity of feelings.

What Other Research Has Been Done on Associative Play?

According to Dr. Smilansky, there are four different types of play in which children engage: Functional, Constructive, Games with rules, and Pretend or Dramatic play. These four plays are often tagged onto Parten’s theory of six plays; associative-functional, cooperative-dramatic, etc.

  • Functional Play: Functional play involves learning about the physical characteristics of objects. The goal of functional play is to heighten curiosity and motivate children to learn more about their world.
  • Constructive Play: Constructive play is where children use objects and begin to construct things. The goal of constructive play is to use objects to represent something else, which involves abstract thinking.
  • Games with rules: Games with rules is where children play games with set structures. Games with rules help children concentrate, understand limits, and control their behavior to conform to the rules.
  • Pretend or Dramatic Play: Pretend or Dramatic play is when children imitate real life experiences they’ve seen. The goal of pretend or dramatic play is to help children visualize and use symbols to represent real objects or events.

Rubin, Maioni, and Hornung’s research stated that middle classes are more likely to participate in social play such as associative play rather than lower classes. Their research revealed that middle-class children emitted significantly more associative-constructive and cooperative-dramatic play and significantly less solitary-functional and parallel-functional play than lower-class preschoolers.

They also found that males are geared more towards solitary-functional and associative-dramatic, whereas females are more geared towards solitary-constructive and parallel-constructive.

However, contrary to Rubin, Maioni, and Hornung’s research, Moneta, and Dyer found that children of low socioeconomic status (SES) have a significantly stronger rate of associative play. They took 40 children, ages 3-5, from East England.

There was an equal number of children with high SES as there were children with low SES. They found that children with low SES were almost twice as likely to engage in associative play as children with high SES.

According to Hope Wilson’s research, the high ability children spend more time in functional, dramatic, and solitary play behaviors than typical children. Wilson states that high ability children are more likely to choose to play alone rather than with their peers.

Associative play is an important milestone in the child’s development because it is the first play in Parten’s theory that involves the child becoming more interested in the children they are playing with than the actual toy or game.

Though there are still no definite rules or roles in this play, the child begins to integrate into a group rather than isolating. It marks the path of a child learning to make friends.