What’s The Most Important Word in Childhood?

by | Jul 11, 2022

“And at the end of the day, your feet should be dirty, your hair messy, and your eyes sparkling”-Shanti

PLAY, especially in nature is a fundamental right of all humans. Today, the children’s right and need for play is rapidly disappearing from American early education classrooms; most notably in our country’s most underserved and historically marginalized communities. Our goal at Aishling Forest School is to preserve the magic of childhood for children of all abilities. We offer financial aid and scholarships upon request and are always open to providing trainings to interested public schools.

So what exactly is PLAY and do we really understand it, especially as adults?

Most adults think of play as something that should be done after work, something that is frivolous that children engage in when they have nothing better to do. However, this couldn’t be farther from the truth as play is an incredibly important element that is vital in the healthy development of every child.

Play, unlike structured activities and sports, is defined as a choice, is freely chosen, intrinsically motivated and a self-directed meaningful occupation. Play is a fundamental human need to design, create, invent, collaborate, communicate, negotiate, and innovate and to freely elevate one’s ideas in partnership with others. Extensive neuroscience and epistemology research shows that play occupation is the driver of learning in childhood.

Aishling Forest School is a child-led, play-based program 100% immersed in nature. Our forest school is based on the Scandinavian Forest School that upholds a fundamental respect for children and young people and their capacity to investigate, test and maintain curiosity in the world around them. Play can be observed in school and at home and below is a breakdown of developmental play through age groups, as researched by prominent play-based theorists. *Please note; these are the most common ages certain play develops, but a child may go through stages before or after the age listed below. Always converse with your pediatrician if you have any concerns

 The Social Behavior Stages of Play by Mildred Parten:

 Mildred Bernice Parten Newhall was an American sociologist and researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development. She is credited with being one of the first researchers to conduct extensive studies on children with a focus on the case of play. She developed the “Stages of Play Theory” in her 1929 dissertation.

Social Stages of Play via Michigan State University

  1. Unoccupied Play (Birth to 3 years old)

Children are observing rather than playing. Children are relatively still and their play appears scattered. This type of play builds the foundation for the other five stages of play. Unoccupied play looks like babies or young children exploring materials around them without any sort of organization. This stage allows children to practice manipulating materials, mastering their self-control and learning about how the world works.

  1. Solitary Play (Birth to 2 years)

This type of play, also called independent play occurs when children entertain themselves without any other social involvement. Children in solitary play may not notice or acknowledge other children. Adults might worry about children playing alone, but actually solitary play is very normal and beneficial. When children engage in solitary play, they are able to explore freely, master new personal skills like new motor or cognitive skills, and prepare themselves to play with others.

  1. Onlooker Play (2 years)

Children who sit back and engagingly watch other children playing, but do not join in are onlookers. The active part of their play is watching others. Sometimes it’s easy to think children engaged in onlooker play might be lonely or scared to engage with other children, when in fact it is a very common part of play development. Just as adults “people watch” at the coffee shop, children learn a lot by watching others. They learn about the social rules of play and relationships, they explore different ways of playing or using materials and they learn about the world in general.

  1. Parallel Play (2+ years old)

This occurs when children play next to each other, but are not really interacting together. For example, two learners may be baking mud pies in our mud kitchen but may not overlap. In this stage, children are not really engaging in a social exchange. Think of this stage like a warm up exercise – children work side by side on the same activity, practicing skills and learning new methods to engage together.

  1. Associative Play (3-4 years old)

This type of play signifies a shift in the child. Instead of being more focused on the activity or object involved in play, children begin to be more interested in the other players. Associative play allows children to begin practicing what they have observed through onlooker and parallel play.  This stage is about developing problem solving and cooperative skills. We often see this play develop as family play in the woods, and in helping each other take developmentally appropriate risks, such as zip-lining, practicing on the rope bridge or swinging from a vine as a team.

  1. Cooperative Play (4+ years)

Skills from all stages come together and the interest is in the people and activity. This is play categorized by cooperative efforts between players. Children might adopt group goals and establish rules for play. It’s important to remember cooperation is an advanced skill and can be very difficult for young children. Ironically, cooperative play often involves a lot of conflict. This is totally normal. It is sometimes difficult for young children to share, take turns and negotiate control in these types of play scenarios. We often see this type of play at Forest School when the learners form teams, create dens and engage in different types of fantasy-world games.

As older learners (6+) hone their cooperative and social play skills, they become leaders in the woods, increasing their play, social, physical and emotional skills and allowing others to learn from them.

Cognitive Developmental Stages by Jean Piaget:

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is a comprehensive theory about the nature and development of human intelligence. It was originated by the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980).

Piaget did not accept the belief that children are “little adults” who have less knowledge; instead he believed children think and speak differently than adults. He understood that children do not just add more information and knowledge to their existing knowledge. Instead, there is a qualitative change in how children think as they gradually process through the below four stages.

Based on his observations, he concluded that children were not less intelligent than adults—they simply think differently. Albert Einstein called Piaget’s discovery “so simple only a genius could have thought of it.”

Photo credit: Verywellmind.com

  1. The Sensorimotor Stage (Birth to 2 years old)

During this stage, children go through a period of dramatic growth and learning and know the world through movements and sensations (they learn to crawl and walk- how amazing is that?!) They learn about the world through basic actions such as sucking, grasping, looking and listening. Object permanence is learned as children notice that things continue to exist even when they cannot be seen.

  1. The Preoperational Stage (2-7 years old)

The foundations of language development have been laid in the previous stage but the emergence of language is one of the major hallmarks of the preoperational stage of development. During this stage, it’s also common to see children struggle to see things from the perspective of others and while they are getting better with language and thinking, they still tend to think in concrete terms.

  1. The Concrete Operational Stage (7-11 years old)

During this stage, children become more adept at using logic and the egocentrism of the previous stage begins to disappear as children become better at thinking about how others might view a situation. Within this stage, children also begin to understand that their thoughts are unique to them and that not everyone else necessarily shares their feelings or opinions.

  1. The Formal Operational Stage (12+ years)

The final stage of Piaget’s theory involves an increase in logic, the ability to use deductive reasoning and an understanding of abstract ideas. Adolescents are capable of seeing multiple potential solutions to problems and to think more scientifically about the world around them.

Just a Few Ways How Forest School Synthesizes the Theories:

  • Scaffolding is a very common occurrence at Forest School and is a bridge to new skills using three key ingredients; modeling the skill (such as whittling), giving clues and asking questions while the learner is trying out the new skill, and then as the learner approaches mastery, withdrawing the support and letting them gain independence through their mastery. Scaffolding allows learners to build confidence so that they’re able to advance their play individually and amongst peers.
  • Parten’s theory can be followed via our youngest children, where one might come in and an engage in onlooker playing, whereas the following season they start playing side by side in the mud-kitchen.  At Forest School, we are learner-led and interest-based and the learners have the time and space to naturally develop through the stages, all while being given the freedom to investigate what matters most to them.
  • As a mixed aged learning environment, the younger learners are able to level up their play abilities and to learn the rules associated with more advanced levels of social and cooperative play. They are free to explore their individual stage of play, according to Piaget’s theory, all while learning about the next stage of play, hand in hand with their peers.



rope bridge forest school
Activities to try at home to hone in on your play-based observational skills:
  1. Observe free play for at least 15 minutes and take note of what type of play schemas they naturally fall into. Observe how this play evolves.
  2. Come to CEED outside of the forest school season and let your little take you on an adventure here in their magical home in the woods. Again, observe their types of play and make note of what you see.
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