Play is crucial for early childhood development since it encourages children to express themselves creatively while developing their imagination.
While children progress through various stages of play, parallel play is particularly beneficial to young children as it promotes language development, supports gross and fine motor skills development, boosts children’s confidence, and fosters emotional development.
If you want to know more about parallel play, we’ve put together this comprehensive guide to explain everything you need to know.
What is parallel play?
Parallel play involves two or more children playing side-by-side without interacting. Children may observe other children in the playground or mimic their actions. Parallel play is common among children who haven’t developed body awareness and social interaction skills.
Parallel play examples
Parallel play primarily manifests through imitation. It’s not uncommon to see children mimic other children’s behavior when they play with particular objects like toys. Below is a quick rundown of parallel play examples:
- A child playing with blocks to build towers after seeing another child doing the same.
- Two children in the same play area using different objects to play. One child could be playing with plastic shapes while another plays with a rubber doll.
- Children playing in the sandbox to build sand castles or grabbing handfuls of sand and letting it sift through their fingers.
When does parallel play start?
Parallel play starts between 18 months and two years old. However, children are unique and achieve developmental milestones at different times. Some children are early to this stage, while others may be a bit late.
When does parallel play end?
The parallel play stage should end within a year or two after it begins. The end date varies for all children since they achieve their developmental milestones at different times. A child’s physical environment also plays a crucial role.
When do kids start playing together?
There’s no definite time for kids to start playing together since all children develop at their own pace. Nonetheless, child development trends state that most children start playing together between three and four years old.
Mildred Parten’s social behavior theory and stages of play
Parallel play can be hard to comprehend without knowing its origin. Parallel play is associated with Mildred Parten’s social behavior theory, developed in 1932. Her theory of social behavior is about the six stages of play that a child progresses through. She conducted extensive studies to understand children’s unique play behavior at different developmental stages.
Parten’s research involved intensively studying two and five-year-olds for one-minute periods. Her study findings showed that children play alone during the first four stages of play and together in the last two.
According to Parten’s theory, the six stages of child play are:
- Unoccupied play
- Solitary play
- Onlooker play
- Parallel play
- Associative play
- Cooperative play
Below we examine each stage in detail.
1. Unoccupied play
The unoccupied play stage is the first sign of a child’s play. It occurs between birth and three months and is characterized by moving legs, hands, arms, and feet. This is when children learn about how their body moves.
2. Solitary play
The solitary play stage occurs between birth and two years. Children primarily play alone during this stage since they’re not interested in playing with other children. Typical play activities in this stage are touching and tasting objects and listening to their voice to explore their environment.
3. Onlooker play
The onlooker play stage is also known as the spectator stage. It’s the first step to learning how to play with other children, and it starts at two years. While children watch others play, they’re usually not ready to join them at this stage.
4. Parallel play
Parallel play is when children play side by side independently. It starts at two or three years or 18 months for some children. The stage is characterized by observation and mimicking what other children are doing.
5. Associative play
The associative play stage is when children begin to interact when playing. It starts when a child grows to three or four years and is characterized by limited interactions. Think of children using the same playground equipment but doing different activities like swinging, jumping, or climbing.
6. Cooperative play
The cooperative play stage starts when a child is four years or older. Children are more sociable and interact with other children at this stage. This play stage involves collaboration, so you may see children working together to build a tower block.
Benefits of parallel play
While watching your child play alone may cause alarm, nothing can be further from the truth. Instead, you want to encourage and help them with parallel play since it has many benefits for their growth and development.
Why is parallel play important? Below, we look at the importance of parallel play.
Supports language development
While parallel play is side-by-side independent play, it doesn’t mean children aren't aware of what’s happening around them. Parallel play is an excellent way for children to develop listening skills and learn new vocabulary.
Children are inclined to pick up one or more new words from other children and adults as they go about their playing. An example is when an adult calls a toy or an activity by name. The child registers the new term into memory and may begin using it soon. Parallel play supports both language and speech development overall.
Promotes gross and fine motor skills development
Gross and fine motor skills are crucial for children's physical strength and movement. Children use motor skills to do everything, including lifting items, walking, crawling, running, and jumping. Motor skills boost children’s self-esteem and encourage independence.
Parallel play is essential for developing gross and fine motor skills. Both small and large muscle groups are engaged while children are playing. This could be using blocks to build towers, playing with sand, or using the swing.
Facilitates social development
Children need social development to interact with their peers and adults. Importantly, they also need it to express themselves freely. Parallel play is an excellent opportunity for children to learn to express desires and emotions.
Joy, fear, frustration, and curiosity are some emotions children may express while playing side by side. This way, educators and parents can better understand children and offer specialized attention depending on a child’s unique behavior.
Fosters collaboration and sharing
Parallel play encourages peaceful play among children who haven’t learned to collaborate and share items. For example, some children are possessive and may want to have all the toys at the expense of others in the playroom.
Educators and families can use this opportunity to teach the concept of sharing and foster collaboration. This way, children can coexist harmoniously while playing side-by-side.
Parallel play creates the perfect setting to encourage children to be independent even when in the company of others. This is also a skill they can take into adulthood.
How to help children with parallel play
Educators and families play a significant role in helping children with parallel play. The key to promoting parallel play is to offer opportunities. Below are activities and materials to help children with parallel play.
- Set playdates: You want to schedule specific playdates to support parallel play. It would be best to group children based on age to achieve the desired results.
- Incorporate music and dance: Music stimulates the mind and helps children express themselves. Dancing side by side is a remarkable parallel play idea for children. Planning a dance party is one way to support parallel play through music and dance.
- Encourage sensory play activities: Sensory play activities are great parallel play activities. Some examples to consider are playdough, building blocks, and playing with toys. Also, starting with shorter parallel play sessions is best so children don’t lose interest.
- Provide more toys: Having enough toys makes the process easier so children don’t have to scramble over a few available toys. You’ll also want to place toys at a central location for easy access.
Learn about activity ideas that promote learning across developmental domains with our free list!
Parallel play is crucial for the healthy development of children. It supports language development, promotes motor skills development, facilitates social-emotional development, fosters collaboration and sharing, and encourages independence.
Families and educators have a stake in promoting parallel play. Success is guaranteed when they set playdates, incorporate music and dance, and encourage sensory play activities.
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