If you’ve taken your baby to a playdate only to find that they sit near other children but never join in the fun, you may be just a bit concerned.
Does this mean your baby is anti-social at such a tender age?
Is the reluctance to engage in social interaction a sign of something more serious?
You can relax.
Your baby isn’t holding anything back. They are engaging in parallel play. They’re doing exactly what they should be doing at this age and right on cue.
What Is Parallel Play
Parallel play takes place when two toddlers play near one another, usually with the same material, without interacting directly. Parallel play is quite common in young children from 18 months old to age two.1
During parallel play, some children observe their playmates and mimic their behavior. While this can be considered as social behavior, there’s still a noticeable lack of full-on interaction2.
Examples Of Parallel Play
Parallel play is often seen on the playground among young children.
When two toddlers play in the sandbox near each other, they may both grab handfuls of sand and watch it sift through their fingers. Or they both use a bucket to build a sand castle. Each one is engaged with the process but not with each other.
If a playmate is playing with a doll, for example, the other child is likely to start playing with a doll as well.
Why Is Parallel Play Important
Every type of play contributes to a child’s cognitive development and social development, and parallel play is no exception3.
But the importance of this type of play is divided into two schools of thought.
Stages of play
Parten (1932) described parallel play as a stage children pass through as they develop from solitary players to social ones. She believed that the six stages of play – unoccupied, onlooker, solitary, parallel, associative, cooperative – were ordered, representing increasing levels of social participation.
As a result, parallel play is important because it represents a milestone in a child’s development of social skills. With age, this type of play will decrease4.
Strategy of play
Although Parten’s study proposed six categories of play as “stages”, other scientists have found that children sometimes do not go through these stages sequentially or at all.
While one child can progress from solitary play to parallel play and then to group play, another can go directly from solitary play to group play5.
Parallel play is also found to not vary much with age.
Sugarman-Bell (1978), believed that children developed person-oriented and object-oriented interactive abilities separately, resulting in two major modes of play – alone play and group play.
As the first year progresses, these two abilities begin to work together. Children begin integrating people into their physical activity of object manipulation and objects into their social environment in a systematic way.
Adding a social focus or an object focus is done one at a time, not simultaneously.
Children who are playing alone may desire to play with other children but may not have the skills to engage in group play immediately. Parallel play is a step or strategy to bring them closer to group play. It is an optional state that arises momentarily as needed. It provides a child opportunities to play with others.
Parallel play is therefore important because it initiates group play rather than being a developmental stage as previously believed6.
Final thoughts on parallel play
Playing, regardless of the types of play, is important in a child’s healthy development. It challenges and socializes a child through activities. Help them develop connections with people by setting up playdates for your child with children their age.
- 1.Anderson-McNamee JK, Bailey SJ. The importance of play in early childhood development. Montana State University Extention. 2010;4(10):1-4.
- 2.Grusec JE, Abramovitch R. Imitation of Peers and Adults in a Natural Setting: A Functional Analysis. Child Development. Published online June 1982:636. doi:10.2307/1129374
- 3.Milteer RM, Ginsburg KR, Mulligan DA, et al. The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bond: Focus on Children in Poverty. Pediatrics. Published online January 1, 2012:e204-e213. doi:10.1542/peds.2011-2953
- 4.Smith PK. A longitudinal study of social participation in preschool children: Solitary and parallel play reexamined. Developmental Psychology. Published online 1978:517-523. doi:10.1037/0012-1618.104.22.1687
- 5.Robinson CC, Anderson GT, Porter CL, Hart CH, Wouden-Miller M. Sequential transition patterns of preschoolers’ social interactions during child-initiated play: Is parallel-aware play a bidirectional bridge to other play states? Early Childhood Research Quarterly. Published online March 2003:3-21. doi:10.1016/s0885-2006(03)00003-6
- 6.Bakeman R, Brownlee JR. The Strategic Use of Parallel Play: A Sequential Analysis. Child Development. Published online September 1980:873. doi:10.2307/1129476