Freud saw play as a means for children to release pent-up emotions and to deal with emotionally distressing situations in a more secure environment. Vygotsky and Piaget saw play as a way of children developing their intellectual abilities (Dyer & Moneta, 2006). All three theorists saw play as providing positive outcomes for children. Mildred Parten (1932) observed two to five year-old children and noted six types of play. Three types she labeled as non-social (unoccupied, solitary, and onlooker) and three types were categorized as social play (parallel, associative, and cooperative). Table 4.4 describes each type of play. Younger children engage in non-social play more than those older; by age five associative and cooperative play are the most common forms of play (Dyer & Moneta, 2006).

Table 4.4 Parten’s Classification of Types of Play in Preschool Children



Unoccupied Play

Children’s behavior seems more random and without a specific goal. This is the least common form of play.

Solitary Play

Children play by themselves, do not interact with others, nor are they engaging in similar activities as the children around them.

Onlooker Play

Children are observing other children playing. They may comment on the activities and even make suggestions, but will not directly join the play.

Parallel Play

Children play alongside each other, using similar toys, but do not directly act with each other.

Associative Play

Children will interact with each other and share toys, but are not working toward a common goal.

Cooperative Play

Children are interacting to achieve a common goal. Children may take on different tasks to reach that goal.

Box 4.2 Imaginary Companions

An intriguing occurrence in early childhood is the emergence of imaginary companions. Researchers differ in how they define what qualifies as an imaginary companion. Some studies include only invisible characters that the child refers to in conversation, or plays with for an extended period of time. Other researchers also include objects that the child personifies, such as a stuffed toy or doll, or characters the child impersonates every day. Estimates of the number of children who have imaginary companions varies greatly (from as little as 6% to as high as 65%) depending on what is included in the definition (Gleason, Sebanc, & Hartup, 2000).

Little is known about why children create imaginary companions, and more than half of all companions have no obvious trigger in the child’s life (Masih, 1978). Imaginary companions are sometimes based on real people, characters from stories, or simply names the child has heard (Gleason, et. al., 2000). Imaginary companions often change over time. In their study, Gleason et al. (2000) found that 40% of the imaginary companions of the children they studied changed, such as developing superpowers, switching age, gender, or even dying, and 68% of the characteristics of the companion were acquired over time. This could reflect greater complexity in the child’s “creation” over time and/or a greater willingness to talk about their imaginary playmates.

In addition, research suggests that contrary to the assumption that children with imaginary companions are compensating for poor social skills, several studies have found that these children are very sociable (Mauro, 1991; Singer & Singer, 1990; Gleason, 2002). However, studies have reported that children with imaginary companions are more likely to be first-borns or only-children (Masih, 1978; Gleason et al., 2000, Gleason, 2002). Although not all research has found a link between birth order and the incidence of imaginary playmates (Manosevitz, Prentice, & Wilson, 1973). Moreover, some studies have found little or no difference in the presence of imaginary companions and parental divorce (Gleason et al., 2000), number of people in the home, or the amount of time children are spending with real playmates (Masih, 1978; Gleason & Hohmann, 2006).

Do children treat real friends differently? The answer appears to be not really. Young children view their relationship with their imaginary companion to be as supportive and nurturing as with their real friends. Gleason has suggested that this might suggest that children form a schema of what is a friend, and use this same schema in their interactions with both types of friends (Gleason, et al., 2000; Gleason, 2002; Gleason & Hohmann, 2006).