What Is Onlooker Play? The Meaning And Activities For Your Toddler

by Team Scary Mommy
Originally Published: 
onlooker play, Child looking at something
Bess Hamiti/Pexels

Looking for more examples of play in babies, toddlers, and preschoolers? Check out our package with more information on solitary play, parallel play, associative play, and cooperative play.

Have you been spending more time at home and less time socializing lately? (Who hasn’t?!) If you happen to glance over at your toddler and notice that instead of playing with other kids, they’re seemingly content sitting on the sidelines and watching their peers, you may panic and jump to the conclusion that they’ve picked up on your own poor social habits and are now doing the same thing. Then you think about how kids are supposed to play and should want more than to simply observe other children having fun. Is this all you’re doing? Did you already mess your child up? Nope, Mama, you definitely did not! It’s far more likely that you witnessed onlooker play, which is actually one of the six different stages of play for kids, developed by American sociologist Dr. Mildred Parten Newhall in 1929. A big part of being a little kid is watching other kids romp and play. A child may stand back and watch them from a distance. Here’s what onlooker play involves, along with some activities and examples of it.

The six stages of play

If you take a look at kids interacting on a playground or in a daycare and lump everything they’re doing together as “play,” you may be interested to learn that there are actually six distinct stages of play. These were developed by Parten Newhall as part of her doctoral dissertation, which she finished in 1929 and went on to publish in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology in 1932. Not only was Parten Newhall one of the first researchers to seriously study play, but her stages are also still regularly referenced today, more than 70 years later.

Parten Newhall’s six stages of play include:

  • Unoccupied play
  • Solitary (or independent) play
  • Onlooker play
  • Parallel play
  • Associative play
  • Cooperative play

These stages take various factors into consideration, including a child’s age, mood, and social setting. And while her research focused on children between the ages of two and five, it’s important to keep in mind that every child develops at their own pace, meaning that there’s no “normal” play behavior for all three-year-olds, for example. Here, we’re going to focus on onlooker play. Here’s what you need to know.

What is the meaning of ‘onlooker play’?

It may appear as though children who seem to prefer to watch other kids play instead of joining in themselves are missing out. But as it turns out, they are actively playing by watching others, which is a completely normal part of their play and social development, according to Michigan State University. Think of it like “people watching,” except instead of sitting by yourself at the airport or sidewalk cafe with a giant coffee taking in the variety of humanity passing you, it’s your child observing and taking note of how their peers play with each other, learning in the process. Not only can they pick up on things like different toys or games, but they also get a glimpse into social rules and interaction.

What are the benefits of onlooker play?

It’s important to remember that a child that isn’t necessarily “in the mix” is just as socially healthy as a social butterfly child. There are stages of social development. During onlooker play, kids are building their cognitive skills by learning from the actions of others. They can also work on their social and emotional skills. An observing child has the opportunity to boost their attention and memory. It’s the time they get to think and understand how certain actions, words, and gestures affect other children, which will be incredibly helpful when they get to school.

During this onlooker stage, your kids learn from other children about what it means to interact and play with other kids. They then use what they watched and learned to imitate during the next stages of play. This time of observation also helps them build their listening skills and rule comprehension.

What are some examples of onlooker play activities?

Onlooker play doesn’t necessarily involve (or require) any type of set-up — it tends to happen organically when younger children, like toddlers, are in the same place as either their peers or older kids. If they like and understand what they see and want to join the others, they will. Otherwise, they’re just soaking in a live play demonstration and learning along the way. Though a list of onlooker play activities is pretty short and essentially involves one thing (watching others), here are a few examples of activities that a child in the onlooker stage of play development might appreciate:

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  • Bringing your child to the park or playground to watch how other kids use the equipment and play games
  • Taking them to some type of sporting event (and obviously there’s no need to drop dough on tickets to see professionals — to your toddler, a local tee-ball game looks like the major leagues)
  • Giving your child the chance to watch other kids play dress-up and/or pretend games
  • Springing for tickets to a local children’s production, like a play, and letting them watch kids their age act
  • Taking your child to a children’s museum and having them observe how other children interact with exhibits
  • Attending a concert by a children’s choir

Again: If and when your child engages in onlooker play (especially as a toddler), that doesn’t mean they’re anti-social or introverted. It’s a completely normal and healthy part of their social development.

How does a parent encourage onlooker play?

If your child is at this phase, they’ve reached a milestone in their development, which deserves to be celebrated. As a parent, it is your job to be there for them as they go through these changes.

  • It might sound odd, but watch your child as they watch others. A reassuring glance or look from you will help your child feel more confident to speak up or participate in play. You don’t want to be caught looking at your phone when they’re looking to you.
  • Just because your child watches kids play does not mean they can’t have playdates. If your baby’s calendar allows, pack it with some playtime with other kids. This gives your little nugget an opportunity to learn from other children even if they’re not interacting directly.

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