Early Childhood Education

Parten, Mildred (1902-)


Mildred Parten received a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Minnesota in 1929. Best known for her work related to children’s play, her landmark study, which was based on her doctoral dissertation, was published in 1932. In this work, Parten describes categories of children’s social play, defined as occurring when children play in groups. Consistent with new understandings emerging from the Child Study movement, she identified an age-related progression in the types of social play that characterized early childhood.

Parten identified six categories of play that ranged, in her view, from the least to the most developmentally complex. The first category of social play she labeled as unoccupied behavior and is actually not play, but an observation of others’ play. A child participating in unoccupied behavior will generally be seen moving about the classroom from one area to another, but not getting involved in any particular activity. He may be seen standing around, following the teacher, or sitting in one spot glancing around the room.

The second category of social play Parten identified, in which the child is an onlooker, is closely related to unoccupied behavior. As an onlooker, the child observes a group of children playing, but does not overtly enter into the play activity with them. He may talk to the children whom he is observing, ask questions, or give suggestions and stays within speaking distance of the group playing so that he can see and hear the play that is taking place.

Parten identified a third category of social play as solitary play or playing alone. A child participating in solitary play will play by herself and independently from other children with toys that are different from those being used around her. The child pursues her own play without reference to the activities of others.

The fourth category, which is closely related to solitary play, is identified as parallel play. While participating in parallel play, the child continues to play independently, but the activity she chooses brings her within close proximity of other children. She plays with toys that are similar, perhaps using them in similar ways, but does not interact in the play themes of the children nearby. In other words, she plays beside the other children, but not with the other children.

The fifth category, associative play, is the first in which the child plays with other children. When participating in associative play, the child interacts and shares materials with other children, but does not engage in a common activity with those around him.

The final category, identified as cooperative play, is the most social form of play and involves children playing together in a shared activity. The group is organized with a goal, such as creating a product, playing games, or participating in a dramatic play scenario. Various group members fulfill different roles and those roles complement each other and allow the play to continue in an organized and methodical manner.

Parten’s research suggested that, as children grow and mature, they tend to progress through these categories, and their play becomes more complex with age. She noted, further, that earlier types of social play do not disappear entirely and may be revisited occasionally, even as the child becomes capable of more complex levels of social play. Although more recent perspectives on children’s play challenge this linear progression—noting, for example, that solitary play may entail high levels of creativity and critical thinking—few early childhood professionals or researchers discuss or study children’s play without recognition of the insights provided by Mildred Parten.

Further Readings: Feeney, S., D. Christensen, and E. Moravcik (2006). Who am I in the lives of children? 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall. Parten, Mildred B. (1932). Social participation among pre-school children. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 27, 243-269; Sluss, Dorothy J. (2005). Supporting play: Birth through age eight. Clifton Park, NY: Thomson Delmar Learning.

Angie Baum