Sibling play: are you expecting too much, too young?

‘Just go play with your sister!’ Might sound like a reasonable enough request but is it really a realistic expectation for sibling play?


Anecdotally, I say it isn’t. Simply observing my own children at play, I know that it has taken time for my children to play in harmony (most of the time) with one another. From around the age of 3.5, my youngest son has now started to play and collaborate with his sister.


At this point, he is taking her lead and essentially mimicking her play. This is great for both of them: Mr 3 is learning new skills and his language is flourishing. Whereas Miss 5 is learning patience and also taking on a leadership role.


But this is a more recent development. Before this point, they might occasionally play side-by-side, but it was more likely that my youngest would destroy the play efforts of my middle child. This was incredibly frustrating for her.


As an only child myself, sibling disputes were a new concept to me so I dove into research to find out why my children weren’t playing together.


So  what does the research say?


According to Parten’s Stages of Play, it does take time for collaborative play to happen


Parten’s 6 Stages of Play

Back in the 1920’s researcher and scientist Mildred Parten used her observations of children to outline 6 stages of play development. Her published paper, ‘Social Play Among Preschool Children’ can be accessed here.


As with all research based theories, please use this as a guide rather than a document that is set in stone. Every child is different and sibling dynamics can be different too. You might find that your child stays in the solitary stage of play for longer (my eldest did this) or you might notice that your children play collaboratively at a younger age than 4.

1. Unoccupied Play (0-3 months)

The very first stage of play doesn’t really require any special resources. Babies are perfectly happy to observe the world around them and explore how their own body functions! To our adult eyes, it might seem like there is no learning going on and we might feel obliged to entertain, however this unoccupied stage of play is crucial. It helps children orientate themselves in their surrounding. During this period they are also starting to develop motor skills – think building head and neck strength during tummy time or grasping for objects in front of them.


2. Solitary Play (0-2 years)

Solitary play essentially means playing alone! At this stage, your child will not be that interested in playing with you or their siblings. However, you will start to notice longer periods of occupation – perhaps posting some wooden coins into a box or building a tower from wooden blocks.


3. Onlooker /Spectator Play (2 years)

From 2 years, children start to notice how other children are playing. At this stage they will watch proceedings and listen to the play of other children but it is unlikely that they will join in. Rather than force participation, let your child be. By watching older siblings or other children playing, younger children gain so much – from language development to gaining inspiration on how to play.


4. Parallel Play (2+ years)

At around the age of 2 onwards, children will start to sit side by side to play however there will be little to no engagement between them. There are no set goals and the focus of play will differ. For example, one child might be happily playing with blocks whilst the other is building a train set or they might use the same resources from time to time. This stage can be fraught with squabbles over toys. I recommend introducing the concept of ‘taking turns’ rather than ‘sharing’. This allows the children to choose when they are done with an item rather than forcing set limits.

sibling play - girl playing with cogs set and boy playing with trains

5.Associative Play (3-4 years)

From 3 onwards, children will start to interact more with their siblings or peers. At this stage, they are not working together on a joint concept and are still preoccupied with their own play, however they will negotiate for shared items and start to converse with one another. They might ask questions about what the other child is doing or take inspiration and copy the gameplay.

sibling play girl and boy playing with magnetic tiles together

Cooperative Play (4+ years)

The final stage of play is when children start to take interest in other children around them, engaging in play together. They will work together towards a common goal – building a castle out of magnetic tiles together, for example or engaging in a dramatic play scenario. This stage also links to Vygotsky’s Social Constructivist theory of learning – essentially, collaborating and working together as a social group helps children to learn more.

Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level and, later on, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals.

Vygotsky, Lev (1978). Mind in Society. London: Harvard University Press.

5 Ways  to support your children when they play:

  1. Adjust your expectations of play- play doesn’t have to look a certain way. For example, it might appear like your child is doing nothing but watching the play around them, but this is still play!
  2. Provide appropriate toys – use your observations of play to provide materials
  3. Breakaway play spaces for older siblings – having a smaller play space or a cosy cubby can help reduce tensions
  4. Model play – especially if your child doesn’t have any siblings or if siblings are at school. Sit down with them side-by-side and play. They learn so much from this!
  5. Have some strategies in your parenting toolkit for addressing sibling conflict – read this blog post for more information.


Want More?

The Playful Days at Home Starter Kit is the perfect place to get started on your playful parenting journey!

In a 10-part video series, you’ll learn 10 essential lessons for parenting in the early years. Unlock the doors to understanding play, creating a playful home environment, fostering independence, and more.
Play is a huge part of the Starter Kit, lessons include:
  • Understanding the True Meaning of Play
  • Your Role in Play
  • The Steps to Independent Play
  • Simplifying Play at Home

playful days at home toolkit image 1

Sian Thomas
an image of This Playful Home founder, Sian Thomas. The photo includes a photo of her daughter when she was around 18 months old

I’m Siân (rhymes with yarn), a play advocate, proud parent to three, and former teacher. My mission is to infuse more joy and less overwhelm into the lives of parents. Discover play-based activities with me that not only make learning FUN but also forge deep connections with your young learners, creating memories to cherish forever.