Although all children are unique, they grow and develop in mostly predictable patterns. How does play fit into their world? This lesson defines parallel play and explains why this important kind of play matters.
Children & Play
Adults hear the word ‘play’ and think of things like card games with the fellas, sporting events, and maybe even a fun time at the park or beach. In other words, play means freedom from responsibilities. But for young children, play is pretty much work.
How did you spend your time when you were young? Does riding bikes, working on puzzles, playing Candyland, or having a kickball game sound familiar? That’s actually by design. Young children learn about their world by playing. Figuring out appropriate and acceptable social interactions with others is a necessary life skill.
So when did our journey of being members of society begin? Let’s look at Tommy, a newborn who is just stepping into the world of social interactions.
Kinds of Play
Children progress through several stages of play when they’re very young. Think of how happy babies are when they are around people they love, such as their parents and siblings. When Tommy smiles, coos, and shows other forms of serve and return actions, or those mimicked from or by others, he’s laying the groundwork for solid relationships later in life.
By the time Tommy gains motor control and is able to grasp objects, he’ll explore alone, or engage in solitary play, even if there are peers or other children and adults present. Tommy will also show what is called onlooker behavior, a time during which he’ll watch other children more carefully and take note of their play behavior. In the next stage, parallel play, Tommy will play near or next to other children without interacting.
This typically occurs around two years of age. We’ll take a closer look at this later.Following parallel play, Tommy will move into associative play. Although he isn’t quite interacting in a way we typically refer to as playing yet, he is getting better at taking turns, sharing toys, and showing a deeper awareness of other children.
Tommy still likes to play alone, and still watches and listens to other children as he does.Finally, he’ll move into cooperative play when he’s around four years old. He has conversations and communicates with other children often. They create pretend games, like superheroes and racecar drivers. He has learned how to share his ideas and how to listen to other children’s ideas, too. He’s even become good at sharing toys and taking turns.
It’s important to note that these are not stages Tommy goes through one by one. Tommy still plays by himself and side by side with other children, even in elementary school.
Exploring Parallel Play
Although there is no set time frame when children begin parallel play, we usually see it happen in the toddler years, around two years of age. During parallel play, children are engaged in and focused on their own activities while sitting next to or near other children. While they may use similar toys or materials, there’s no cooperative play and little to no interaction. Parents and caregivers sometimes think parallel play is just two children playing next to each other, but much more than that is happening.
Let’s imagine that we are watching Tommy and his friend Bobby engage in parallel play. At first glance, it just looks like two young boys playing separately near one another. Tommy is stacking blocks and Bobby is shaking a bright orange ball that lights up when shaken. Every now and then, Tommy stops what he’s doing to glance over at Bobby.
Noticing the shaking movement, Tommy gives it a try, shaking his block the same way he sees Bobby shaking the ball. The blocks don’t react the same way, as nothing lights up. Tommy looks again, shakes again, but still no light. He notices Bobby put the ball in his mouth, and gives this a try. Yuck! The wooden blocks are not tasty. Tommy goes back to stacking blocks.When children are engaged in parallel play, they notice other children and their movements.
They learn new ways of exploring toys and even different methods of interaction. If Tommy notices Bobby cry and receive a response from a caregiver, Tommy may give that a go as well. Caregivers can help children learn by showing them how to interact. For example, Tommy’s mother can say, ‘Bobby, that’s a fun ball. Can I see it?’ This models how to speak to other children.Parallel play can happen anywhere children love to be, from a preschool classroom to a sandbox. While in a sandbox, children will scoop and mold sand by themselves while others near them do the same thing.
Preschool classrooms will have boys playing with cars near each other and mimicking car noises while not interacting with one another. Children will paint side by side or work on their own puzzles happily while at the same table with peers and seem to be in their own zones. Adults will see little communication or interaction among these children.
Children play as a way to learn important things about their lives.
Play builds social and emotional development. As children grow, they learn new ways to interact with others. They begin by playing mostly by themselves but interacting with adults and siblings in loving ways. Eventually, they’ll begin to notice peers.
They’ll play next to them without interacting, referred to as parallel play. This leads to more interaction in associative and cooperative play later in early childhood.Parallel play is an important step towards learning social rules and norms. Children are aware of each other during parallel play and take cues about how to use toys and interact with others. Like we saw with Tommy, parallel play can happen anywhere children play, from a playgroup to the sandbox.
Caregivers can foster relationships by modeling interactions with other children. In this way, children, like Tommy, learn how to form relationships, a skill they will need throughout life.