What Is Parallel Play For Toddlers And Preschoolers And How Can I Foster It?

by Team Scary Mommy
Originally Published: 
Parallel play, preschool classroom
Gautam Arora/Unsplash

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

As an adult, it can be easy to overlook the importance of play for children. Maybe it’s out of white jealousy (especially when play is framed as “a child’s job” and we realize we don’t get to do as much of it as we wish we could). Or maybe it’s because we don’t think we know how to play at this stage in our lives. Let’s be honest: The very thought of getting down on the floor to build a fort or do a puzzle terrifies us — or at least our creaky knees. But whatever our current perspectives on play are, it’s critical that as parents we understand play is a crucial part of our child’s development.

Believe it or not, there are six different stages of play, which were developed by American sociologist Dr. Mildred Parten Newhall in 1929. One of these stages is parallel play. Here’s what it involves, and what it can look like for toddlers and preschoolers.

The six different stages of play

If you take a look at kids interacting on a playground or in 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 for 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: This kind of play is seen in infants up to three months olds. This typically looks like random movements or jerks that seem like fun to your baby. This is your infant’s way of understanding their body and their environment. Even though they don’t go very far with their movements it’s a form of learning.
  • Solitary (or independent) play: See below!
  • Onlooker play: When you see your child watching other children play without joining in themselves, this is called onlooker play.
  • Parallel play: This is when your kiddo watches other kids play but doesn’t join in. They may talk about the activity happening around them, but that’s usually where it stops.
  • Associative play: This is when your child plays with other children but is still doing their own activity.
  • Cooperative play: This is the final stage of play. Your child collaborates and works directly with other children. This usually happens at four to five years old.

These stages take various factors into consideration, including a child’s age, mood, and social setting. And while Parten Newhall’s research focused on children between the ages of two and five, remember that every child develops at their own pace. This means there’s no “normal” play behavior for all three-year-olds, for example. In this article, we’re going to focus on parallel play for toddlers and preschoolers.

What is parallel play?

Have you ever coordinated with other parents to schedule a playdate for your toddlers? If so, you may have noticed how little the “date” part of the equation seems to matter. Sure, the kids may all be playing — and in the same room — but they’re not necessarily playing with each other. Instead, they’re happily doing their own thing.

This may seem odd or even concerning (perhaps you’re worried that you’re raising a tiny anti-social human who prefers their own company over interacting with others), but it’s not! It’s called “parallel play.” One of Parten Newhall’s six stages of play, it’s both a normal and healthy part of your child’s development.

What is solitary play?

We know what you’re thinking. How is this really different than solitary play? During parallel play, there is a connection between the children because, although they’re both doing their own thing, the kids are still playing close to each other. They acknowledge each other’s presence. And even though they may not interact, they are still learning from one another, participating in the same kind of activity, mimicking one another, or checking out what the other kid is doing.

Solitary play is when your little one is in their own world and plays alone. They show no interest in the other children and, during their play, they don’t interact with others. Keep in mind, there is nothing wrong with your child playing by themselves. Your kid isn’t going to always want to play with others, and that’s OK. It’s also a great way to teach your little one to be self-sufficient.

How can parents encourage parallel play?

Typically, parallel play isn’t something you need to “set up” for your child; more often than not, it happens naturally. Two or more kids all sit (or stand) in close proximity to each other but, for the most part, play alone. It’s usually the stage right before social play begins, which involves the kids actually interacting with each other.

According to Dr. Dana Cohen, a child psychologist and director of autism and early childhood evaluation services at Beaumont Children’s, parallel play can occur anywhere as long as the area is set up to encourage it. Sometimes, parallel play also occurs in spaces that aren’t intentionally designed to foster it. Take your parents’ house, for instance. It probably isn’t set up for parallel play. Yet, when the whole family gets together, there’s a good chance it could happen with toddlers and preschool-age children.

What would the ideal set-up for parallel play look like? Cohen suggests picturing a daycare or preschool where there are different “zones” set up around the room. This arrangement allows some kids to play with blocks, while others dress up in costumes, do art projects, and so on.

What are the benefits of parallel play?

To the untrained eye, seeing children engage in parallel play may look strange. It may cause someone to wonder how a group of toddlers ended up as loners at such a young age. But really, the opposite is true. Here are some of the benefits of parallel play:

  • Encourages language development
  • Assists fine and gross motor skill development
  • Gives children the freedom to express their feelings and preferences
  • Helps kids better understand social interactions and teaches them about boundaries
  • Teaches them how to share

So, the next time you go through the effort of getting a group of preschoolers together and they just sit next to each other playing on their own, you’ll know why. Bonus? You won’t feel frustrated because you now understand this type of separate togetherness is an important part of child development.

How can you (parallel) play along?

When it comes to the types of play, parallel play is one that honestly makes it pretty easy for a busy parent to participate. To engage in parallel play with your little one, simply set yourself up nearby doing your own thing. Maybe channel a little zen doing some adult coloring while your kid plays with their dolls a few feet away. Or get out a notepad and pencil and start sketching out that bathroom addition you’ve been dreaming of. The idea is that your child will be content in what they’re doing, so they’ll be content for you to be a more passive player. Just hop into their fun every so often to keep them engaged, and you’ll find that parallel play can be fantastic for both of you.

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