How to Use Parallel Play to Promote Healthy Development in Children

Parallel Play

Did you know that play is more than just fun for children—it’s essential for their growth and development?

Understanding the role of parallel play also known as play parallel in early childhood development is crucial for parents and educators alike. It lays the foundation for social skills and prepares children for more complex interactions.

This guide explores the concept of what is parallel play, its importance in fostering social development, the stages of play according to Mildred Parten’s theory, practical benefits for children, ways to encourage parallel play, and addresses common concerns parents may have about this developmental stage. Understanding these aspects will help support children as they navigate through this fundamental stage of play and learning.

Understanding Parallel Play

1. Definition of Parallel Play

Parallel play refers to a stage of social play observed in young children, typically between the ages of 2 and 3, where they play alongside others without engaging directly with them. During parallel play, children may be interested in similar toys or activities but do not actively interact or cooperate.

Describe typical behaviors observed during parallel play:

  • Playing Side by Side: Children engage in activities near each other but without any coordinated effort or interaction.
  • Minimal Communication: While playing, they may observe each other but rarely communicate or share toys directly.
  • Independent Play: Each child focuses on their own exploration and enjoyment of toys or activities without influencing or being influenced by others.

2. Importance of Parallel Play

Discuss why parallel play is crucial for child development:

Parallel play serves as a stepping stone in a child’s social development, laying the foundation for more complex forms of social interaction later on. It provides several important developmental benefits:

  • Social Skills Development: Children learn to be in the presence of others and observe social norms without the pressure of direct interaction. This helps them become comfortable in group settings.
  • Independence and Confidence: Engaging in parallel play allows children to explore their own interests and preferences independently, fostering a sense of autonomy and confidence.
  • Imitation and Learning: Even without direct interaction, children may observe and imitate each other’s actions, which contributes to their cognitive and motor skill development.
  • Preparation for Cooperative Play: Parallel play sets the stage for more cooperative play later on, as children become more comfortable with others and start to engage in shared activities and roles.

Mention the developmental milestones associated with parallel play:

  • Typically Emerges Around Age 2: At this stage, children start to show interest in playing near others but may not yet engage in cooperative play.
  • Progression to Cooperative Play: As children mature socially and emotionally, they transition from parallel play to more interactive and cooperative play by around age 3 or 4.
  • Role of Environment and Experience: Opportunities for parallel play in structured settings like preschool or playgroups support social development and readiness for more complex social interactions.

Understanding and supporting parallel play as a normal part of early childhood development can help parents and caregivers foster social skills and prepare children for future social interactions and relationships.

Developmental Stages of Play

1. Overview of Mildred Parten’s Social Behavior Theory

Mildred Parten, a sociologist and researcher, developed a widely recognized theory on the stages of social play in children. Her research, conducted in the 1930s, categorized children’s play behaviors into six distinct stages based on their level of social interaction and engagement with others, including the concept of “parallel play age”.

List the six stages of play according to Parten’s theory:

  1. Unoccupied Play
  2. Solitary (Independent) Play
  3. Onlooker Play
  4. Parallel Play
  5. Associative Play
  6. Cooperative Play

2. Detailed Explanation of Each Stage

Unoccupied Play:

This stage involves seemingly aimless movements or activities where the child appears to be occupied with something, but their actions lack apparent purpose or focus.

  • Developmental Significance: It allows children to explore their environment and engage in spontaneous movements, laying the groundwork for more structured play.

Solitary (Independent) Play:

Children engage in play independently, focusing on their own activities and interests without interacting with others. Solitary play encourages independence, creativity, and self-reliance as children learn to entertain themselves and explore their imagination.

Onlooker Play:

Children observe others playing but do not actively participate. They may ask questions or make comments but remain at a distance.

  • Learning Aspects: Onlooker play provides opportunities for children to learn by observing and listening, gaining insights into social dynamics and play activities.

Parallel Play:

Children play alongside others with similar toys or activities but do not engage directly with them.

  • Benefits: Parallel play fosters socialization skills, allowing children to feel comfortable in the presence of peers while maintaining independence in their play choices.

Associative Play:

Children start to interact more with each other, sharing toys and materials, though their play may not be fully coordinated or organized.

  • Beginning of Social Interactions: Associative play marks the beginning of social interactions and cooperation, where children learn to negotiate, share, and communicate with peers.

Cooperative Play:

Children engage in organized play activities with shared goals and rules, collaborating and taking on different roles.

  • Advanced Social Skills: Cooperative play enhances teamwork, problem-solving, and conflict resolution skills, promoting deeper friendships and more complex social interactions.

Understanding these stages of play helps parents and educators support children’s social development and provide appropriate opportunities for play-based learning experiences. Each stage contributes uniquely to a child’s overall growth and prepares them for increasingly complex social interactions as they mature.

Benefits of Parallel Play

1. Language Development

How parallel play supports vocabulary growth and communication skills: Parallel play, also known as side by side play, provides children with opportunities to engage in verbal exchanges, even if they are not directly interacting with each other. During this stage, children may narrate their actions, make comments, or ask questions aloud, which supports language development. They learn new words, practice sentence structures, and begin to understand the importance of communication in social interactions. Through parallel play, children build foundational skills in vocabulary, comprehension, and expressing thoughts and feelings.”


2. Gross and Fine Motor Skills

Discuss the development of motor skills through various parallel play activities: Parallel play involves a variety of activities that promote both gross and fine motor skills development. Children engage in physical movements such as running, jumping, climbing (gross motor skills), and activities that require hand-eye coordination and precision like stacking blocks, using play dough, or manipulating small toys (fine motor skills). These activities help strengthen muscles, improve coordination, and enhance dexterity, preparing children for more complex physical tasks and academic activities.

3. Social Development

Explain how parallel play helps children understand social norms and behaviors: Parallel play allows children to observe and mimic social behaviors they see in others. By playing alongside peers, children learn about taking turns, sharing space, and respecting others’ play preferences. They begin to understand basic social norms such as waiting for a turn, expressing preferences, and responding to social cues like smiles or gestures. This stage lays the foundation for future social interactions and friendships by providing a safe environment for early social learning and exploration.

4. Collaboration and Sharing

The role of parallel play in teaching children about sharing and teamwork: Although parallel play primarily involves independent play alongside others, it introduces children to the concept of sharing common play spaces and materials. As children become more comfortable with parallel play, they may start to engage in simple exchanges of toys or take turns using equipment. This gradual exposure to sharing and cooperation sets the stage for more advanced forms of play, where children learn to collaborate, negotiate, and work together towards common goals.

5. Independence

How parallel play fosters a sense of independence and self-reliance in children: Parallel play encourages children to explore their interests and engage in activities without relying on constant interaction with others. They learn to make choices independently, entertain themselves, and manage their own playtime routines. This sense of autonomy builds confidence and self-reliance as children develop a growing sense of competence in navigating their social and play environments. Parallel play supports children in becoming more comfortable and capable in their interactions with peers and adults, setting a strong foundation for future independence and decision-making skills.

Practical Examples of Parallel Play

1. Common Scenarios

  • Playground: Children use slides and swings independently but alongside each other. They may observe how others use equipment and try new activities, fostering confidence and physical skills.
  • Classroom: During free play time, children choose different activities such as puzzles, building blocks, or pretend play. They play independently but may mimic each other’s actions or exchange comments, promoting creativity and social interaction.
  • Home Setting: Siblings or playmates engage in parallel play with toys like dolls, cars, or building sets. They play alongside each other, occasionally sharing toys or imitating actions, which strengthens social skills and imagination.

How these scenarios benefit children’s development:

  • Independence: Children learn to entertain themselves and make choices about play activities, fostering autonomy.
  • Observational Learning: By watching others, children learn new skills, problem-solving techniques, and imaginative play ideas.
  • Socialization: Parallel play introduces children to sharing spaces and materials, laying the groundwork for future cooperation and teamwork.
  • Language Development: Children may engage in simple conversations or narrate their actions, expanding vocabulary and communication skills.

2. Activity Ideas

Block Building: Children build independently while observing each other:

  • Benefits: Encourages creativity, spatial reasoning, and fine motor skills. Observing others’ structures sparks ideas and fosters problem-solving abilities.

Sandbox Play: Engaging in individual sand activities side by side:

  • Benefits: Develops sensory exploration, hand-eye coordination, and social skills. Children share space and resources, learning about boundaries and cooperation.

Art Projects: Creating individual art pieces in a shared space:

  • Benefits: Enhances fine motor skills, creativity, and self-expression. Children may share materials, exchange ideas, and appreciate each other’s artwork, promoting social interaction and confidence.

These activities not only support children’s developmental milestones but also encourage peer interactions and prepare them for more complex forms of play and collaboration in preschool and beyond.

How to Encourage Parallel Play?

1. Setting Up Playdates

Tips for organizing effective playdates that promote parallel play:

  • Similar Interests: Invite children with similar interests or favorite toys to encourage parallel play based on shared activities.
  • Structured Environment: Create a safe and structured play space with various play options to promote exploration and engagement.
  • Facilitate Interaction: Plan activities that allow children to play alongside each other, such as building blocks or playing with dolls, while encouraging independent exploration.

2. Incorporating Music and Dance

Ideas for using music and dance to encourage parallel play:

  • Group Movement: Play music that encourages movement activities like dancing or marching, where children can participate individually yet alongside their peers.
  • Instrument Exploration: Provide various musical instruments or simple rhythm tools for children to explore independently while listening to music together.
  • Imaginative Play: Use music to inspire imaginative play scenarios, such as pretending to be animals or characters in a story, fostering creativity and cooperation.

3. Encouraging Sensory Play

List of sensory play activities that are conducive to parallel play:

  • Water Play: Provide containers, cups, and toys for scooping and pouring water in a shared sensory table or outdoor area.
  • Playdough Exploration: Offer different colors of playdough and tools for cutting, rolling, and shaping, allowing children to engage in tactile exploration alongside each other.
  • Sensory Bins: Fill bins with materials like rice, beans, or sand, along with small toys or scoops, encouraging children to explore textures and objects independently but in close proximity.

4. Providing Ample Toys and Materials

Importance of having enough toys and materials to avoid conflicts and promote engagement:

  • Reduce Competition: Having multiple sets of popular toys or materials minimizes conflict over resources, allowing children to focus on their play and exploration.
  • Promote Sharing: Encourage sharing and turn-taking by having enough toys for everyone, fostering cooperative behavior and social skills.
  • Variety Stimulates Interest: Rotate toys and materials regularly to maintain interest and provide new opportunities for exploration and learning.

By implementing these strategies, parents and caregivers can create supportive environments that encourage parallel play, promoting independence, socialization, and overall developmental growth in young children.

Addressing Concerns and FAQs

1. Is Parallel Play Normal?

Reassure parents about the normalcy of parallel play at certain ages: Parallel play is entirely normal and expected during early childhood development, typically seen in toddlers and young children around ages 2 to 3. It’s a stage where children play alongside others but may not actively engage with them. This behavior allows children to explore their own interests and develop social skills at their own pace, laying the foundation for more interactive play as they grow.

2. When Should Children Transition to Interactive Play?

Discuss typical timelines and signs that children are ready for more interactive play: Children naturally progress from parallel play to more interactive forms of play as they develop socially and emotionally. Signs that indicate readiness for interactive play include:

  • Initiating Interaction: Showing interest in playing with others and initiating activities or conversations.
  • Sharing and Turn-Taking: Demonstrating willingness to share toys and take turns during play.
  • Imitating Peers: Mimicking behaviors and actions of other children, indicating a desire to engage socially.
  • Verbal Communication: Using language to communicate preferences, ideas, and feelings with peers.

Transition times vary, but many children begin to engage in more cooperative and interactive play closer to ages 3 to 4, as they become more comfortable with social interactions and sharing experiences with others.

3. What If My Child Prefers Parallel Play?

Provide advice on how to gently encourage interactive play without forcing it:

  • Model Social Behavior: Demonstrate cooperative play behaviors and encourage interactions with your child during playtime.
  • Facilitate Play Opportunities: Arrange playdates with peers in small groups or structured settings where interactive play is encouraged but not forced.
  • Offer Choices: Provide a variety of toys and activities that appeal to your child’s interests, promoting engagement with others naturally.
  • Patience and Support: Respect your child’s comfort level and readiness for social interaction, offering gentle encouragement and praise for attempts to engage with peers.

By supporting your child’s development at their own pace and providing opportunities for social learning, you help foster confidence and positive social interactions over time. Remember, every child is unique, and gradual exposure to interactive play will occur naturally as they grow and gain confidence in their social abilities.


In this guide, we explored the significance of what is parallel play in child development. We discussed its stages, benefits including language and motor skills development, and its role in fostering social interactions and independence.

Encouraging parallel play provides children with essential skills and prepares them for more interactive forms of play as they grow. Embrace this stage as a natural part of your child’s social development journey.

We invite you to share your experiences with parallel play or ask any questions you may have in the comments below. Together, we can support each other in nurturing happy, confident children.