A child’s pattern of play is a good guide to how far he has matured mentally and emotionally. At eighteen months, toddlers are already very interested in playing, but not with children their own age. Rather, their energies are directed toward exploring and mastering things- a toy car, a ball, a stacking tower of colorful rings.
Sometimes during the third year, youngsters begin to enjoy the first stages of social play, playing side by side with another child, though with no real interaction, in what psychologist’s term “parallel play.” Toddlers of this age, in the process of defining themselves as individual personalities, are absorbed in the lessons of “me”, “my”, and ” mine”. In their view, wanting something is tantamount to owning it, and sharing something seems the equivalent of losing it forever. These early play sessions are likely to be filled with frequent, though fleeting, conflicts.
By about four years of age, the well adjusted child has broadened his play to include a greater degree of involvement with others. In this next stage, called “associative play,” children still play separately and individually, but they begin to engage in social chatter. If you listen closely to the conversation between two children of this age, you will notice that they are not really talking to their playmate, but are conduction separate monologues, each child talking about his own concerns without regard to the others. “Me first” is still the ruling sentiment, and a certain amount of friction is inevitable: hitting and pushing and fighting over toys typically peak at this age.