Piaget’s Three Stages of Play

photo by Chip Griffin

photo by Chip Griffin

This post will focus on Jean Piaget’s theory of stages of play.  From what I understand, Piaget stressed that children’s biological maturity (their actual growing older) was a condition for learning.  He also theorized that children need to explore and learn about themselves through play.

He categorized the stages of play into three broad categories.  These categories correspond with the stages of cognitive development that Piaget also put forth.

Let’s look at them one by one:

1- Practice play. Matches with Sensorimotor stage (age 0-2)

Play at this stage may consist of repeated body movements, putting objects in your mouth, blowing spit bubbles, playing peek-a-boo and the like.  Riotous fun for a baby.  So basically, as the baby is learning about them self  through their physical senses, their play is also centered on themselves or things around them.

Think about this: if you give a baby a lego block ( not recommended, but stick with me here), what will they do with it?  Put it in their mouth? Check!  Shake it like a rattle? Check!  Throw it on the ground? Check!… You pick it up and they throw it down again? Check!…. This is practice play.

2- Symbolic play. Matches wih Pre-operational stage (age 2-7)

Play now is more advanced.  Children will engage in make believe games and fantasy role play.  They love to dress up as “the policeman” or “the fireman” or “mommy” and “daddy”.  Children will also use objects to symbolize something other than their intended function.  It seems that every “L” shaped piece of anything can become a “gun”.  Children will also use blocks to build objects that look like… well, sometimes it can be a bit of a mystery!

Think about this:  Give a bunch of lego blocks to a three or four year old.  They will build something.  A “cross” shape often is an airplane.  A block shape is often a house.  Something that sort of looks like a big square is a cake and so forth.  Teachers will often find themselves saying “Oh. so beautiful…….. what is this?”

3- Games with Rules. Matches with Concrete operational stage

(ages 7-11 hint: may actually start a bit earlier….)

Play quickly becomes more structured. Rules are developed and play now also takes on a social aspect.   This is “allowed” or you can’t do that “because it is against the rules” are common refrains in this stage.  Teams develop.  Competition ensues.

Think about this:  Children of 8-10 years old may still love lego.  But now, they look to a diagram, to “the rules”, and construct replicas of the objects on the box.  Each piece must be in the proper place…no exceptions… these are the rules.


Let’s use another example.  Playing with a ball.

Stage 1-Throw the ball on the floor… giggle… (pretend play)

Stage 2- The ball is a ball, perhaps, but there are no teams….all children play in the same manner- kicking and general running around in all directions (symbolic play).

Stage 3- The ball may now be the central object of a game.  Teams are formed. Goal posts are made… the game has rules and a score (games with rules).


That is my understanding of how Piaget thought it all went down.

Any comments?  Happy to have them below.

Happy teaching!

Lemon Lime Education

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