What Is Parallel Play in Childhood?
Parallel play in childhood is the skill of playing next to other children.
Parallel play is readily observable on the playground at preschool. You will notice a child riding a tricycle near other children. You may see two children swinging on the swings side-by-side. You might notice two children running trucks through the sand tray at the same time.
When you observe children playing like this, you are seeing the first signs of healthy social development. There are some who say, “a child’s work is a child’s play,” and at these early stages, that’s a good way to look at it.
What is happening in these parallel play scenarios? Kids are learning to find enjoyment in play and comfort in being around other children.
Research shows that parallel play is an important stage that has an essential role in social development. During parallel play, a child is learning to be in close proximity to other children. 
Play 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.” 
Parallel play is different from interactive or cooperative play. These skills emerge through the toddler years. The skills build on each other throughout social development.
5 benefits of parallel play
1. Parallel play shows kids how to play. One of the reasons it is important to see your child playing next to other kids is because it provides peer models. Let’s say Henry is watching Jack build a block tower. Although Henry might not build it with Jack, he is learning from Jack that building with blocks is something other kids do for fun. Henry gets to see how other kids play and the facial expressions they make when the play gets fun or interesting.
2. Parallel play allows kids to be around each other. It is important for kids to learn to play around each other. As a parent on the playground, keep a close eye on whether or not your child is willing to approach and be around other kids. It is fine to play alone sometimes, but you will want to see your child gaining confidence and comfort around other kids.
3. Parallel play avoids conflict. As kids are learning to socialize, it may be hard for them to learn skills like sharing, problem-solving, and interacting positively with others. While they are sorting out how to do that, playing parallel is a great way to begin building social skills.
4. Parallel play can build initiation skills. Sometimes as kids learn to socialize, they are not sure how to initiate play with others. Often kids will stay on the sidelines for a bit and observe the other kids before deciding how to engage. This ‘sidelines’ approach is a great strategy for many kids to learn how to join other kids without being too pushy, assumptive, or overbearing. Later, kids will need to learn which groups are ‘friendly’ vs. which groups are not as inviting. Children learn to gravitate towards more inviting groups as they mature.
5. Parallel play can be a step toward interacting. As children learn to enjoy playing around each other, they can begin to interact. Typically, younger children will interact without much conversation. For example, they may slam trucks together, play tag, or take turns going down the slide.
Why parallel play matters
As shared above, parallel play is a great sign of early healthy social development. We want to see toddlers and preschoolers progress from playing alone to playing near each other to interacting to more advanced play skills.
The reason all of this matters is that these early relationships form the foundation for later social development and friendships. Kids who are around each other and get along well are likely to become friends. These friendships provide a supportive environment for your child in school and in life.
Further, when children play together, they provide modeling and practice for each other. Your child learns by doing. If a child spends a lot of time playing with other children, it is much more likely that strong social skills will develop.
For some children, these play skills are a bit delayed. A child may prefer to play alone even into elementary school. The challenge here is that a child who plays alone is not yet practicing social skills. As the skills get more complex and advanced in later elementary school, the child has less experience with successful social interactions.
For example, the child may not be sure how to join a group, play a game, be a good sport, or have a conversation with peers. What can happen is something called the ‘shadow effect,’ which has to do with this lack of practice. Some kiddos who get intervention for their social skills may still be behind for a while because they haven’t had the same opportunities to practice these important social skills.
For these reasons, it is really important to watch your child’s developing play skills and make sure things are on track with peers. See the guide below to evaluate your child’s abilities in comparison to typical development.
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.
1. 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.
2. 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).
3. 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).
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
If your child seems to be on track, you will see these skills gradually progressing, as shown above. Often, there is a big jump at the beginning of each semester and the end of each school year. As the kids come back from winter break, they tend to look more mature. When you take a picture of your child on the first day of school and the last day of school, you may notice many physical differences. If you look closely, you may also see that your child has matured socially.
You may notice your toddler started playing happily near other kids in the neighborhood.
You may notice your preschooler has started interacting with playmates and has found a new friend at school.
You may notice your kindergartener has started playing with particular friends at recess and has been invited to a playdate or a birthday party.
You may notice your third grader has a new BFF (best friend forever). Keep in mind that these friendships do not start to stabilize until about third grade, so don’t be alarmed if the BFF changes from time to time.
What if this does not happen, though? Is your child having trouble playing with other children and making friends? Listed below are some ways to know if there is a concern about your child’s play skills.
Characteristics of Parallel Play Difficulties 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
In skimming over these play skill challenges, you may have noticed that one or two of these are coming up for your child. Perhaps your child is really hesitant around peers. You may notice that your preschooler tends to wander the playground without interacting. You may see that your child is having frequent conflicts with peers. It also could feel like your child hardly notices the other children. Listed below are some potential causes of social challenges. See if any of these resonate for you and your child.
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.
When To Seek Help for Parallel Play Issues in Children
Your child avoids other kids
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. There is cause for concern when the child feels much more comfortable playing alone than engaging 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 them. 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
In very young children, age three and younger, parallel play is emerging. There are some toddlers and preschoolers who are very comfortable playing around other kids and some who are less so. Many kids will play alone some of the time, next to other kids some of the time, and with other kids some of the time. Any minor issues during play in toddlers and early preschoolers are not cause for concern.
When a 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.
These social and play skills go hand-in-hand with other areas of development. Social skills emerge alongside areas like emotional development, problem-solving, cognitive skills, and fine motor skills.
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
- Psychotherapist: to provide play therapy or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy interventions. These interventions are effective in helping children with social skills issues make gains in recognizing and understanding their emotions and improving their perspective-taking skills. Therapists can also help with managing any co-occurring depression and anxiety
- 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
 Karen Gill, MD (June 20, 2016). 6 Types of Play Important To Your Child’s Development.
 Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support.
 Baker, Jed. (2001). The social skills picture book: Teaching play, emotion, and communication to children with autism.
 Baker, Jed. (2006) Social skills picture book for high school and beyond.
 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.
 Madrigal, Stephanie & Winner, Michelle G. (2008). Superflex. A superhero social thinking curriculum.
 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/peers
Ozonoff, 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.