From the January 2019 issue

Parallel Play and Toddlers: What It Is and Why It Matters

When kids are very young, they often play right next to each – but not with each other. Here's the scoop on parallel play and its benefits for tots.

Parallel play and toddlers

Parallel play is a small phase in a young toddler’s life where he or she plays alongside other toddlers but doesn’t interact with them.

This is a common occurrence with toddlers between the ages of 1 and 2, and it joins other curious toddler phases like talking to themselves and getting overly clingy.

Similarly, though, this activity isn’t anything to worry about – and, in spite of appearances, actually sets the stage for social play.

Dr. Dana Cohen, a child psychologist and director of autism and early childhood evaluation services at Beaumont Children’s in Royal Oak, says parallel play is actually the precursor to social play and should be encouraged.

What does it look like?

Parallel play looks like what it sounds like. Most often, Cohen says it’s two children playing next to each other in close proximity, but not together. Each child is focused on his or her own play.

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It can occur anywhere, says Cohen, as long as the setting is set up for this play to occur. Picture places stocked with building blocks or pretend play centers, where tots are all happily tinkering in their own little “zones.”

“It most often occurs in school or day care settings that set up stations throughout the room to try and encourage it,” Cohen says.

Why it’s important

When toddlers, typically from the ages of 1 to 2, engage in this type of play, they are actually setting themselves up for more social play, Cohen explains.

“Some kids do it earlier,” she adds. Cohen notes that since this type of play is a precursor to social play, it is a huge stage of development and teaches children early social skills.

“They learn through play and interaction,” Cohen adds. “If they don’t have parallel play, it could impact their development.”

Cohen notes that if your child reaches the age of 3 and is not moving on from parallel play and into something more interactive and social, then that could be a sign of autism.

“But there is a lot of variability, like personality,” Cohen says.

For example, some kids are just shier. This should be taken into account before jumping to a diagnosis. Seek further medical advice if needed.

Nurturing parallel play

It’s essential that parents get involved in this very important stage in their toddler’s development. Encouraging parallel play is as simple as setting up small play dates at home with one or two children, explains Cohen.

Cohen says parents should structure and monitor the play dates so parallel play does occur. Certain toys also need to be involved for this to happen, says Cohen.

For example, she says that for younger toddlers, shape sorters are a good choice – and for older toddlers, you could bring out toys that will encourage pretend play, like baby dolls.

But to avoid overwhelming the children, Cohen says to not bring out a lot of toy options.

Besides play dates at home, Cohen says you can bring your little one out to classes at your local library or a play area in the mall, especially if they aren’t in day care.

Cohen explains that compared to play dates at home where the environment is quiet and relaxed, play dates out in public may be harder places to encourage parallel play. Still, the exposure to other children their age is beneficial enough.

Encouraging the next step: interactive play

Once your toddler hits the age of 3, Cohen expects he or she would already be moving on from parallel play and practicing more social forms of play. But if not, there are ways to encourage it.

Cohen suggests bringing out games that involve turn taking and monitoring the structure of the playing and to help prompt the social aspects.

Another tactic is introducing a toy that prompts sharing, as sharing is a very early sign of interactive play, says Cohen.

Just remember, “You can’t force your child to play with another child,” Cohen says, “but you can encourage it.”

Art by Brent Mosser

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