Parallel play is when children play next to each other, but do not interact. The kids are sitting next to each other, they are engaged in a play activity, but they don’t talk to each other or engage in any type of interaction.
Dr. Mildren Parten (1932) identified 6 stages of play that occur during the first five years of childhood.
Parallel play can usually be observed in children between the ages of 18 months to 2 years.
Here is Parten’s original definition of parallel play:
“The child plays independently, but the activity he chooses naturally brings him among other children. He plays with toys that are like those which the children around him are using, but he plays with the toy as he sees fit, and does not try to influence or modify the activity of the children near him. He plays beside rather than with the other children There is no attempt to control the coming or going of children in the group” (p. 250).
- Two babies sitting next to each other banging pots and pans with spoons independently.
- One child playing with a squeeze toy with their back to another child playing with a tea-set.
- Two toddlers playing with a sensory table, each one putting beads in their own cups, but not each other’s.
- One child pushing a train on a wooden track while another child is sitting at the other end pushing a different train on the track.
- Two youngsters trying on different kinds of hats while seated next to each other but not exchanging hats or looking at each other.
- One child opening and closing a pretend bakery door while another child pretends to feed a stuffed animal.
- Two toddlers stacking blocks next to each other, but not helping each other or giving each other blocks to use.
- One child playing with a doll while the child next to her is playing with a wooden truck.
- Two kids sitting very close to each other, but facing in different directions. Each is playing with a separate toy.
- Two children playing in a toy kitchen. One is washing dishes while the other is putting food in the refrigerator.
1. Separately Playing with Bags of Toys (Altruism Study)
Since Auguste Comte coined the term “altruism” in the 19th-century, scholars have debated if altruism is innate or a result of socialization.
To investigate if infants could be “socialized” to behave altruistically, Barragan and Dweck (2014) randomly assigned 1- and 2-year-olds to either a parallel play or reciprocal play condition.
In the parallel play condition, the child was given a bag of toys and played alone while the experimenter played separately with identical toys 3 ft. away.
In the reciprocal play condition, the experimenter played with the child by taking turns rolling a ball and handing large plastic rings to each other.
After 6 minutes, the toys were collected and the testing phase began. Using a procedure from previous research, the experimenter tried to grasp an object just out of reach. There were four trials involving: a block, bottle, clothespin, and pencil.
The results showed that:
“…children in the reciprocal play condition helped on significantly more of the four trials than children in the parallel play condition” (p. 17072).
In addition to challenging existing views of altruism as purely innate, the findings have additional significance. As the researchers state, “Caregivers may engage in simple reciprocal activities that foster both the enactment of altruism in children and their expectation of altruism from others” (p. 17071).
2. Playing with Trains…but not together
The above video shows two boys playing with various objects on a table. Although the two kids are right next to each other, their play is in complete parallel.
In the beginning, one boy is moving a bulldozer that sits on a train along the tracks as the other boy simply watches. A little later, the second boy picks up a train and moves it near the boy, but places it on a separate track.
The only interaction occurs when one boy abruptly moves one of the train cars away from his area. The other boy doesn’t seem to notice at all. The two boys continue playing next to each other, but do not speak or even touch the same objects.
This is an example of the somewhat peculiar nature of parallel play; the children play in close proximity, but yet, do not interact in any manner.
3. The Magic Kissing Door
In the above short video you will see several kids playing with two separate doors. The doors don’t lead to anywhere at all, but are getting a lot of use.
The children in the video seem to be obsessed with opening and closing the doors. They also seem to enjoy giving themselves a kiss in the mirror. As the narrator remarks, the mirrors must be cleaned several times a day.
The interesting thing about the children’s behavior is that it is completely independent. The kids are all playing with the same doors, but they are not interacting with each other. One child will open and close a door, and then another child will do the same.
However, as you can see, they are not talking to each other, or making any remarks about the mirror, or opening the door for any of their classmates. The kids are in complete parallel play.
4. Twins Playing in Parallel
Twins are born with a bond that will last their entire lives. However, that doesn’t mean that they defy the rules of basic child development.
The above video shows fraternal twins playing next to each other. The girl is playing with a toy plastic hammer and exploring what kind of sounds it will make if it hits other objects. The boy is lying on the floor next to her playing with a computer keyboard.
At one point we can see the girl stand and walk over to a rocking toy. The boy follows and holds his sister’s arm for a few seconds. Then the girl goes to explore the keyboard her brother has abandoned. Her brother will have none of that and tries to pull her away.
At the end, we can hear the mother encouraging her son to be gentle, and then the video stops (maybe just before a bit of a tussle ensued).
Although the two kids are identical in age and playing next to each other, they don’t tal.k to each other, play together or share toys. They rarely interact
5. An example of a Mother’s Intervention
A lot of parents are concerned when they see their child engaged in parallel play. Their first fear is that their child may be anti-social or have a behavioral problem.
Some parents will attempt to encourage their child to be more social during this stage. That’s not really necessary. Parallel play is part of a very natural developmental sequence that all children progress through.
The only intervention that is needed is to simply let fundamental maturational processes unfold.
Still, some moms and dads will do things in general to help their child develop, butmaynot be specifically geared towards “getting through” parallel play.
For example, parents can arrange play-dates with other children of similar age. Allowing two or three kids to play in the same room during the parallel play stage simply fosters natural development.
Even if the babies are not interacting, remember, that is okay. They may be watching TV and so it appears that nothing is happening, but there is a bond forming between the two, it’s just not being expressed overtly.
Creating a safe environment is a must. Make sure the room is large enough for the kids to have adequate space and remove all sharp objects.
If possible, make sure the corners and edges of furniture are padded, and eliminate the possibility of objects on shelves falling down if a child shakes a bookshelf.
Place any chords on blinds for curtains out of reach and make sure doors that lead to balconies or outside areas are closed and locked.
Parallel play is an interesting phenomenon in the stages of play. Although children are capable of speaking, they prefer not to do so.
Instead, they prefer to be in close proximity toeach other, but yet, don’t interact. Parallel play helps children develop their motor skills and understand boundaries and seems to be a necessary step on the way to more social behavior.
Barragan, R. C., & Dweck, C. S. (2014). Rethinking natural altruism: Simple reciprocal interactions trigger children’s benevolence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(48), 17071-17074. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1419408111
Parten, M. (1932). Social participation among preschool children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 27(3): 243–269. Retrieved from: https://www.mcidenver.edu/childdev/SocialParticipationamongpreschoolchildren.pdf
Savitsky, J. C., & Watson, M. J. (1975). Patterns of proxemic behavior among preschool children. Representative Research in Social Psychology, 6(2), 109–113. Vygotsky, L. S.(1967).Play and Its Role in the Mental Development of the Child.Soviet Psychology,5(3),6-18. https://doi.org/0.2753/RPO1061-040505036