Parallel play is a type of play-based learning that involves students playing alongside each other but not in collaboration.
Key features of parallel play in early childhood include:
- Playing side-by-side but not together.
- Independent exploration and discovery.
- Observing and mimicking.
- Initial egocentrism (inability to focus on others).
- Emerging social skills.
The concept of parallel play was first proposed by Mildren Parten in 1933. Parten identified several stages of play which occurs sequentially in childhood. These six stages of play are:
- Unoccupied play: Children playing in seemingly idle ways.
- Solitary Play: Children play alone.
- Onlooker Play: Children observe others play, but do not get involved.
- Parallel Play: Children play alongside one another and observe each other without explicit interaction.
- Associative Play (social play): Children playing alongside each other but explicitly interact to share resources and ideas.
- Cooperative Play: Children share play objectives and negotiate rules of their shared games.
Parallel play can occur at any age. It is most clearly observable in the ages 2 – 4. During this period, a child remains ecocentric, meaning they’re mostly focused on themselves rather than others. They therefore may not be particularly interested in other children’s play or playing together. However, they may watch another child from a distance.
Key Features of Parallel Play
1. Playing side-by-side.
In the first 18 months of life, a child may be engaged in unoccupied and solitary play. These stages of play usually do not involve other children. The focus on these earlier stages of play is sensory experience. Children are learning about themselves and their environment during play.
Between 18 months and 4 years, you are likely to see a child increasingly interested in playing with (or alongside) others. Play that is parallel but not cooperative occurs in this age range, where a child is beginning to develop social skills but is not yet playing cooperatively.
Parallel play is the bridge between solitary and cooperative play.
Adults and educators often engineer a parallel play scenario by placing a child within the same room as another child during what we sometimes call a ‘social play date’. The room should be a resource rich environment where a child can pick and choose their own toys. Children may play with the same toys as each other, but this is not forced.
Related Article: 15 Parallel Play Examples
2. Independent exploration.
During parallel play, a child continues to play independently. They will learn through traditional play-based learning strategies like:
- Trial and error.
- Discovery through experience.
- Sensory approaches like touch, taste and sight.
- Exposure to new materials and play spaces.
However, a part of their experience becomes observation – which is the fourth key feature.
3. Observing and mimicking.
When other children are in the same play space, a child will use cues from their peers to learn. A child will see what other children are doing and think “that’s a good idea, I might try their method”.
Here, children are acting as models, or what Vygotsky calls “more knowledgeable other”. They set an example by demonstrating new perspective to one another. Some children will continue to use the strategies they see others were using. Others may try them out then reject them with a preference for another method. In other words, observation leads to even more trial and error.
Because of the other children in the room, this trial-and-error is sped up, leading to enhanced development.
4. Egocentrism (inability to focus on others).
At this parallel play stage, a child may be initially egocentric. There is a good chance they’ll ignore the other child or become upset with the idea of sharing toys. the child will slowly move out of the egocentrism as they naturally move through their brain’s biological developmental stages. They may also become primed to move out of egocentrism through exposure to others.
5. Emerging social skills.
Social play skills that emerge during parallel play scenarios include:
- Mimicking others’ behaviors.
- Giving and acknowledging others’ personal space.
- Waiting turns.
Children move on to associative play around 3 or 4 years of age. During this stage, these social skills move on to skills like:
- Learning to share resources.
- At older ages, a child will learn the importance of manners when asking for resources and materials from another child.
- At older ages, a child will also learn to negotiate about who gets to play with which toys, when.
1. Play dates with other kids.
Play dates can take place from very early childhood. Meet up with friends who have children of a similar age and let your children play in the same space while you and your friends observe. A play date can help a child learn about other children their own age, become comfortable with peers, and help you chat with other parents in the same situation as you!
At younger ages, playing in parallel but not together may come more naturally to your child, but over time a child will grow more curious about one another and move through the phases of parallel, associative and eventually cooperative play.
Painting is a great activity that encourages a child to engage in parallel play. Children have their own canvas and paints to work on their own. However, aim to create a space where the child can see other children’s canvases. Allow the child to take control of the painting, using their own methods and strategies. If children are not observing one another after several minutes, the adult could encourage observation of one another.
3. Sibling Play.
Parallel play is very common among siblings. A child with older or younger siblings is very used to playing with other children in their proximity. The younger sibling will learn a great deal from observing their big brother or sister playing. Even though the siblings are at different stages of play, the older sibling may also get additional benefits, such as learning to act as a role model and learning to be responsible around younger children.
Parallel play theory says very little about the role of the adult during play. However, the theory does imply that the play scenarios should involve peer-to-peer observation. Adults should take a back seat and watch how the children interact with one another. Adults should give a child freedom to interact with their environment and others. The goal should be for the child to learn by observing other children, not by observing adults.
Difference Between Parallel and Associative Play
Parallel and associative play are very similar stages of play. However, when a child plays in parallel with another child, there is usually minimal direct social interaction. The interaction and co-play is implicit rather than explicit. The associative play phase is entered when a child begins to share resources, talk and negotiate toy use.
Both parallel and associative play are characterized by being in the same space but having different objectives during play. Once children play the same game and have shared objectives and negotiated rules, they have moved through these stages of play on to ‘cooperative play’.
Advantages and Disadvantages
- Children get immersion in social situations with peers of a similar age.
- Children get the cognitive benefits of solitary play including trial-and-error and discovery through social immersion.
- Children learn new ways of playing with and engaging with their environment during observation.
- Children may slowly develop social and cooperation skills when their play incidentally intersects.
- When children of multiple ages are playing in proximity, the older children act as ‘more knowledgeable other’ role models.
- Without teacher guidance, a child may not get that nudge they need to interact with others.
- Parallel play theory does not explain the role of the adult during children’s play.
- Children of older ages need to interact more and more. Parallel style play may lose its value as children get older.
Parallel play is an important step in children’s play development and represents one of the main stages of play to look out for. Playing in childhood is one of the most valuable forms of learning which underpins cognitive, social and physical development. Parents and educators can use parallel style play-based learning alongside other types of play to support learning and development.
- Parten, M. B. (1933). Social play among preschool children. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 28(2): 136-47.
- Shaffer, D. R. (2009). Social and personality development (6th Ed.). Belmont, CA: Wasworth Cengate Learning.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.