SocializingParallel Play

Parallel Play in Childhood

Two boys playing in the water.
Anna Kroncke
Anna Kroncke
Last modified 23 May 2023
Published 16 Jan 2022

What Is Parallel Play in Childhood?

Parallel play in childhood is play that occurs next to other children but does not include them directly. 

When children are in the toddler and preschool years, parallel play is a good sign of healthy social development. 

Parallel play is a foundational and basic early play skill. It is an important stage in developing reciprocal social interaction skills. This type of play means that your child is willing to be around other children and join them in similar play activities. Research shows that parallel play has an essential role in helping your child learn to interact with others. [1]

Expert, Dr. Gill, describes it well,

 “Remember, learning to play is learning how to relate to others. In that sense, parallel play is that final stage before your child connects with another.” [1]

Parallel play is different from interactive or cooperative play. These skills emerge through the toddler years and build on each other throughout social development. 

A 2-year-old is likely to display a lot of parallel play and very little cooperative play. A 3-4-year-old will play slightly more often with peers but may still prefer to play side-by-side with peers. A 4-year-old child is expected to do much more of what psychologists call “joint interactive play” than parallel or solitary play.

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6 Stages of Play Skill Development

Most children go through these six stages as their play skills develop. Children progress at various rates through these stages.

Parallel play: two children play next to each other without interacting while enjoying the same toys or play space. This play is not social play but it is close in proximity to a peer. This stage is an important one that 2-year-old children will begin demonstrating. You can see this in early childhood education centers.

Sharing & showing: children play next to each other while showing their favorite toys or sharing objects with a playmate. They may or may not talk or play together much. They are simply enjoying the toys or activity by sharing toys or materials. We want to see this next stage of social development in place by preschool (2 years to 3 years).

Joint interactive or cooperative play: little ones and young children begin interacting socially in preschool.  At this stage, you want to see your child participating more and more with peers through back-and-forth exchanges. Children interact when they build block towers together, play chase, go up and down the slide together, or do a puppet show. They may or may not talk while interacting. They are simply playing together physically, cooperating, and taking turns in the same activity (4 years). 

Pretend or fantasy play: as children reach pre-K and elementary school (4 years to 5 years), you will want to see them engaging in fantasy play. This play may include acting out themes like Star Wars, ponies, or princesses. The kids pretend that they are the characters in some fantasy setting. This fantasy play includes ‘taking on a character as an agent of action.’ That is, they might pretend that they are the princess trapped in the castle. They might pretend that they are the Jedi knight saving the empire. They may even take on the character’s voice and mannerisms in play. 

Symbolic play: one of the highest levels of play is called ‘symbolic’ play, and we want to see these skills emerge throughout childhood. This stage includes imagining that an object is more than its obvious use. For example, a child with good symbolic play skills can imagine that a cup is a rocket ship or that a block tower is a building (3 to 5 years old). They begin creating elaborate play sequences with peers.

Shared enjoyment: Throughout childhood and human development, you will want to see a child, teen, or adult enjoying the company of others. Examples include hiding under a blanket with a parent or sibling, swinging on the swing set with a playmate, or laughing at an inside joke. Shared enjoyment does not need advanced conversation. Eye contact, laughter, and smiles are all observable signs of shared enjoyment.

Symptoms of Parallel Play Issues in Children

  • Plays nearby but alone: the child prefers to play alone rather than with others. Although your child is close to peers, there is a distinct separation in the play. 
  • Appears shy and uncertain: your child is very reserved and quiet in the presence of peers and does not warm up over time
  • Prefers playing solo: moves away from others; intentionally avoiding children and finding a quiet space to do their own thing
  • Appears ‘in their own world’: seems oblivious to what other children are doing or insists on play activities that no one else wants to do
  • Engages well in physical play but does not pretend: enjoys chase or wrestling instead of character play or pretending
  • Acts bossy or controlling: always needing to have their own way

Causes of Parallel Play Issues in Children

Avoids peers: some children are shy or anxious socially. They may avoid playing with others for fear of being embarrassed or rejected.

Rigid behavior or bossy behavior: some children will not play around others because they have a ‘my way or the highway’ demeanor. When the other kids don’t want to play their game or do things their way, they quickly retreat. They would rather play alone than play it someone else’s way. 

Hyperactivity or lack of focus: some children may not play well with others because they lack focus. Child psychology experts would expect your child to stay focused long enough to assemble a block tower, small Lego set, or sandcastle with a peer. This expectation would be there even for preschoolers. Most two- to four-year-old children can sustain this play activity for 15-20 minutes. Focus may be the issue if your child would rather wreck the whole train set than engage with a friend. 

Developmental delay or social skills challenges: some children have difficulties approaching and engaging with peers socially. If your child is always the one smacking another child at daycare, social skills may be the problem. If your child keeps getting sent to the principal’s office for taking other kids’ supplies or throwing toys at them, social skills may be the issue. Be aware that these essential skills start early and develop throughout childhood. If your child is struggling, professionals can do a lot to help.

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When To Seek Help for Parallel Play Issues in Children

Your child avoids other kids

Some children struggle to play with other kids. What’s the matter? Your child may be having difficulty with social interaction or engagement. From approximately ages two to three, children tend to move from parallel play to cooperative play. Parallel play is playing beside but not engaging with other children. Cooperative play establishes companionships or friendships. If this is an issue, you will find your child wandering the playground perimeter or playing alone often.

Playing side by side with little social interaction is acceptable for your toddler. However, by age 4 or 5, we would begin to be concerned that cooperative play is not emerging. Some children in later preschool years roam the playground alone, searching for bugs and dirt. They seem to be in their own world, and they do not run with the pack or engage with peers.

Your child is unsure about playing pretend

Pretend play involves imagining that objects are something beyond the most obvious use. If pretend play is a concern, you will notice kids are literal in their play and refuse to pretend. The child may make comments like, “That plate is too small for his hand,” or “He could never fit in that spaceship.” 

Your child disrupts play activities

Some children play close by but don’t pay much attention to their peers and do not try to play with them. When guided to join the group, this child might steal the ball and run away. They might assume that they are playing “with” the kids, not even knowing that they are disrupting. As other children appear frustrated, our game disruptor might be oblivious to the situation and think they are all having fun. In the elementary grades, playing by the rules is very important. Peers will be patient with lots of diversions from the usual play activities. They are much less patient with a child who keeps breaking the rules. 

Your child is not cooperative in play

Cooperative play is the ability to engage with other people in games or activities. It involves being a good sport and including others. Cooperative and pretend play are essential skills for kids to develop in preschool and the primary school years. If your child refuses to share toys or activities with others, you will notice issues. This type of play may end in the other child running away crying or in your child taking the toy to go play alone. 

What to Do About Parallel Play Issues

Parallel play means playing next to someone else rather than with them. In very young children, age three and younger, this stage of play is fine. When this child is four or older, we want to see kids start playing together. They may share toys and objects and cooperate in games. They may show they are having fun together with their facial expressions and body language.

There are many benefits to progressive social development. Children start with parallel play and then move through the stages. This social development goes hand-in-hand with other areas of development. These areas include emotional development, problem-solving, cognitive skills, and fine motor skills. As children play together, they work on all of these important early skills and abilities. 

If your child is struggling with these issues, here are some ideas. 

Structured social activities: Plan social activities for your child around their interests. Join a Lego or Robotics club; pursue the swim team or horseback riding. Find ways to have your child engage socially without leading to failure. Structured activities that involve turn-taking can model back-and-forth interactions for your child. These experiences can help children improve their social skills.

Avoid team sports at first: While your child is still learning basic social skills, you may want to avoid team sports or highly competitive activities. You may choose to avoid soccer teams or baseball teams, which are large activities that require a lot of cooperation. Find something with an individual component but also social opportunities.

Social groups: Social groups in your community or at your child’s school may be a way for your child to learn social skills and have these skills modeled for them. Some preschools have after-school enrichment groups. Some elementary schools may offer times for your child to be around other kids in a non-competitive atmosphere. Examples include movie nights or “Parent Night Out” evenings. Provide breaks and downtime, but give your child social learning experiences.

Playdates: While your child is learning play skills, structured and supervised playdates can help them practice. Even for older children, in 4th or 5th grade, it can be great to have a friend over to the house to hang out. When doing so, though, here are a few pointers. 

  • First, keep it short. Having a three or four-hour playdate asks a lot of your child’s social skills. 
  • Next, mix it up. Do not expect your child to ‘just play’ in the basement for hours with a peer. Help your child by having one part of the playdate at the park, one part in the basement, and maybe one part outside in the backyard. 
  • Last, end on a high note. One way to help your child get an invite to play again is to ensure the whole activity ends in a happy place. If things are getting quiet or conflict-ridden, wrap up the playdate early and help your child do something fun at the end. In child psychology, we know about ‘endpoint bias,’ which means we tend to evaluate a whole event by how it ended. If you want your child’s playmate to come back over, end things in a positive place.

Book resources: There are a variety of great resources for social skills at the end of this article. They can help children learn about the importance of polite greetings, social smiles, active listening, and conversation skills [2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7].

Further Resources for Parallel Play or Social Skills Issues

  • Child psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider an evaluation for diagnostic clarification. Sometimes kids with ADHD or autism need extra support to advance their social skills and make friends
  • Developmental pediatrician: to guide in helping medically relevant issues for children with developmental delays. They can provide referrals or advice regarding behavioral and medical treatment
  • ABA therapist: to teach prosocial behavior. Applied Behavior Analysis uses principles of reinforcement to increase desired behaviors like communication and language and to decrease undesired behaviors like hitting or tantrums. For older children, ABA may be an excellent way to address adaptive skills weaknesses, or social skills or social skills in the school or community
  • Speech and language pathologist: to treat language problems and develop the skills needed for effective social communication. An SLP is an important member of your treatment team if your child has language delays or other communication challenges that are interfering with social skills or play skills. Treatment works best if all team members can communicate with one another to make sure your child is getting comprehensive services

Similar Conditions to Parallel Play Issues in Childhood

  • Pragmatic language: children who struggle with parallel play may also struggle to communicate with peers
  • Attention: children who struggle with parallel play may be having difficulty paying attention to social cues and listening to others
  • Restricted patterns of behavior or interests: children who struggle with parallel play may also struggle with restricted or repetitive behaviors
  • Expressive language: children who struggle with parallel play may also have trouble expressing their thoughts and ideas
  • Receptive language: children who struggle with parallel play may also have trouble comprehending spoken language

References for Parallel Play Issues in Childhood

[1] Karen Gill, MD (June 20, 2016). 6 Types of Play Important To Your Child’s Development

[2] Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support. 

[3] Baker, Jed. (2001). The social skills picture book: Teaching play, emotion, and communication to children with autism

[4] Baker, Jed. (2006) Social skills picture book for high school and beyond. 

[5] Gray, Carol & Attwood, Tony (2010). The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and their Peers. 

[6] Madrigal, Stephanie & Winner, Michelle G. (2008). Superflex. A superhero social thinking curriculum. 

[7] Mendler, Allen (2013). Teaching your students how to have a conversation

Book Resources for Social Skills Issues In Autism 

Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.

Barton, Erin. Educating Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Kroncke, Anna, Willard, Marcy & Huckabee, Helena (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

McKinnon, Kelly & Krempa, Janis L. (2002). Social Skills Solutions: A Hands-On Manual for Teaching Social Skills to Children with Autism. 

UCSB PEERS Clinic https://www.semel.ucla.edu/peersOzonoff, Sally & Dawson, Geraldine & McPartland, James C. (2014). A parent’s guide to high functioning autism spectrum disorder: How to meet the challenges and help your child thrive.

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