Understanding Parallel Play and 5 Benefits

kids playing with blocks in parallel play

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Play is considered a fundamental part of a child’s growth and development. It is through play like brain breaks that children learn how to make friends, understand how things work, and navigate their environment. It is also through play that they learn more about themselves – how to move their body, what feels safe and unsafe, and their interests and talents. 

Researchers have various ways to define play and its many different types. In Mildred Parten’s Six Stages of Play Development, she introduced the term “parallel play” to describe a type of play where children are engaging in independent activities alongside each other. 

In this article, we will talk about what parallel play is, its benefits, and how we can support children who are primarily at this stage of play.

Key Takeaways

Parallel play refers to children engaging in activities or games near each other without direct interaction.

This type of play promotes the development of social, communication, cognitive, motor, and emotional skills.

Adults can encourage parallel play by setting up a shared play environment with ample toys for independent exploration.

Avoiding pressure on children to interact directly with each other allows them to engage in parallel activities and progress in their play skills naturally. 

What is Parallel Play?

Parallel play is observed when children play near each other, often with similar toys and activities. During this stage, they do not directly interact but may mimic each other’s actions. Despite playing in close proximity, they typically do not share toys or collaborate.

In Mildren Parten’s theory on the six stages of play, parallel play is the fourth stage. It follows unoccupied play, solitary play, and onlooker play, and precedes associative play and cooperative play. It typically occurs between children of age 18 months to 2 years old. It’s a time of significant growth and development for children, marked by their increasing ability to engage with their environment and peers.

kids making art
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Examples of Parallel Play Activities

  • Toddlers pushing toy cars along a track without interacting.
  • A child playing with dolls near his sibling, but not with, each other.
  • Kids coloring pictures independently at the same table.
  • Young children riding bicycles side by side without conversing.
  • Children playing side by side, building two separate block structures.

Benefits of Parallel Play

From an adult’s perspective, play may seem like nothing more than rough-and-tumble fun. However, we now understand that play is a crucial time for exploration and learning. Even during parallel play, where children are essentially doing their own thing next to a peer, they are still gaining valuable experiences that support their understanding of the world and the development of various skills.

The benefits of parallel play include the following:

Social Skills Development

During parallel play, children become increasingly aware of their peers. They begin to mimic the actions of other children and observe how they engage with various toys. Parallel play serves as an opportunity for children to practice sharing space and manage the unpredictable elements in their environment.

They learn the social norms of sharing, taking turns, and respecting boundaries. These interactions lay the groundwork for building friendships and developing empathy, as children begin to understand the perspectives and feelings of others through their play experiences.

For children who may not yet feel confident in social interactions, parallel play represents a step towards feeling comfortable around peers.

kids riding a bike
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Cognitive Development

As they continue to gain exposure to the things their peers do in their shared play environment, they gradually acquire cognitive abilities that become foundational skills.

Engaging in parallel play increases their attention span, promotes understanding of cause and effect, develops spatial awareness, and improves executive functioning.

Language Development

Even without direct conversation, watching and mimicking verbal interactions helps young children expand their vocabulary and further develop communication skills.

Emotional Development

Children engaged in parallel play activities can experience a range of emotions like curiosity, frustration, and excitement alongside peers.

These experiences help them learn to recognize and manage their emotions independently. 

Independence and Self-Reliance

During parallel play, children develop the ability to generate their own ideas and implement them independently. They learn to self-direct by choosing the games and toys they prefer or enjoy.

Through parallel play, they become capable of entertaining themselves while remaining open to potential interactions.

Motor Skill Development

Parallel play, whether with blocks, cars, running, or games like Simon Says, is a great way to develop gross and fine motor skills. Since parallel play is less social and more independent, children have ample opportunities to practice these motor skills more than anything else.

Apart from its numerous benefits, it’s important to remind ourselves that every child deserves the space and time to participate in activities they find enjoyable, even if these activities may not appear productive from an adult perspective.

Providing play opportunities is essential for children’s emotional well-being. It’s a time for them to laugh, regulate their nervous systems, and simply experience the joy of being kids.

kids coloring in parellel play
Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

Tips and Tricks

  • Provide similar toys. Offer a variety of similar but not identical toys to encourage children to observe and imitate each other, while preventing competition.
  • Set up a shared play space. Arrange the play area so that children can comfortably play near each other. Ensure there is enough room for each child to have their own space while still being close to their peers.
  • Switch up the available toys regularly. Keep the play environment fresh and exciting by introducing new toys now and again. This will keep them interested and encourage children to continue to play alongside each other.

How to Encourage Parallel Play

Regularly arranging playdates can help young children become comfortable with their peers and increase the likelihood of engaging in parallel play. You can also take them to places like parks and libraries where they can share space with other children their age. 

If you have toddlers, setting out toys in a shared space may encourage them to sit together and tolerate playing alongside each other. However, during parallel play, it’s important to give children the time to become comfortable with the people around them. We want to make them feel safe to explore independently without pressure to engage socially.

They will naturally progress to more interactive play when they feel motivated and ready. Remember, there’s no wrong way for children to play!

If you want to encourage parallel play between your child and their peers, it’s beneficial to stay close but avoid intervening. This approach provides a sense of security while allowing them to concentrate on their own play activities.

More Resources

For more information into parallel play and its benefits, consider these resources:

Author

  • Maria Theresa Bautista

    Theresa is a pediatric occupational therapist, writer, and subject matter expert specializing in autism, ADHD, and sensory processing difficulties. Her doctorate-level training has provided her with the opportunity to support neurodivergent children and their families through direct care and consultation. Currently, she works as a clinician in a special education setting and collaborates with various organizations to create educational content and other resources

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