Parallel play is a type of play-based learning that involves students playing alongside each other but not in collaboration.
Key features 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.
Below is a full outline of the approach.
Five Key Features of Parallel Play
1. Playing side-by-side but not together.
In the first 18 months of life, children may be engaged in unoccupied and solitary play. These forms of play usually do not involve other children. The focus on these earlier forms 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 children increasingly interested in playing with (or alongside) others. Play that is parallel but not cooperative occurs in this age range, where children are beginning to develop social skills but are not yet playing cooperatively.
Parallel play is the bridge between solitary and cooperative play.
Adults and educators often engineer a parallel scenario for play by placing children within the same room during what we sometimes call a ‘play date’. The room should be a resource rich environment where children can pick and choose their own toys.
Children may play with the same toys as each other, but this is not forced.
2. Independent exploration and discovery.
During parallel play, children continue 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. Initial egocentrism (inability to focus on others).
At this stage, children may be initially egocentric. There is a good chance they’ll ignore the other child or become upset with the idea of sharing toys.
Children 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.
Social 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 associative play, these social skills move on to skills like:
- Learning to share resources.
- At older ages, children will learn the importance of manners when asking for resources and materials from one another.
- At older ages, children will also learn to negotiate about who gets to play with which toys, when.
For more on associative play, read our full associative play article.
1. Play dates.
Play dates can take place from a very young age. 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 children 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 children will grow more curious about one another and move through the phases of parallel, associative and eventually cooperative play. Allow this development to occur naturally.
Painting is a great activity that encourages children to play in parallel. Children have their own canvas and paints to work on their own. However, aim to create a space where the children can see each others’ 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.
See also: Child initiated learning.
3. Sibling Play.
Playing in parallel is very common among siblings. Children with older or younger siblings are 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. 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.
Age Range for Parallel Play
Parallel play can occur at any age. It is most clearly observable in the ages 2 – 4. During this period, children remain 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 other children from a distance.
Role of the Adult
Parallel play theory says very little about the role of the adult during play.
However, the theory does imply that the play scenarios should primarily involve peer-to-peer observation rather than adult-to-child observation.
Adults should probably take a back seat and watch how the children interact with one another.
Adults should give children freedom to interact with their environment and others. The goal should be for children to learn by observing other children, not by observing adults.
Difference Between Parallel and Associative Play
Parallel and associative play are very similar. However, when children play parallel, there is usually minimal direct social interaction. The interaction and co-play is implicit rather than explicit.
The associative play phase is entered when children begin 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 on to ‘cooperative play’.
The concept was first proposed by Mildren Parten in 1933. Parten identified three forms of play which occurs sequentially in childhood:
- Parallel: Children play alongside one another and observe each other without explicit interaction.
- Simple Social (Associative): Children play alongside each other but explicitly interact to share resources and ideas.
- Cooperative: Children share play objectives and negotiate rules of their shared games.
Advantages and Disadvantages
- Children get gradual immersion in social situations with peers of a similar age.
- Children continue to get the cognitive benefits of solitary play including trial-and-error and discovery through immersion.
- Children learn new ways of playing with and engaging with their environment during observation.
- Children may slowly develop cooperation skills when their play incidentally intersects.
- Can be a great way for shy, introverted or anxious children to become more comfortable with peers of the same age.
- When children of multiple ages are playing in proximity, the older children act as ‘more knowledgeable other’ role models for younger children.
- Without teacher guidance, children 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.
1. Bandura’s Social Learning Theory
The most obvious link to learning theories is to Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory. Bandura argues that people can learn through:
Bandura’s theory highlights that we don’t necessarily need direct instruction in order to learn. We learn from our environment and culture. This includes learning from:
- Parents when they interact with us.
- Parents when they interact with other things.
- Peers, brothers and sisters.
In parallel play, children are getting all the benefits of learning during solitary play as well as the benefits of observing others’ play behaviors.
2. Vygotsky’s Social Constructivist Theory
The approach also intersects with Vygotsky’s social constructivist theory. This theory highlights that children construct knowledge in their minds, but that this is stimulated, primed and progressed through social experiences.
In particular, when children learn from other children, they are learning from what Vygotsky calls a ‘more knowledgeable other’. For more on this theory, visit my full article on the sociocultural theory of education.
Playing in parallel with other children is an important step in children’s play development. 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.
Wellhousen, K., & Crowther, I. (2004). Creating effective learning environments. Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.