Have you ever noticed your child playing around kids their age but not necessarily with them? This is actually a normal stage of social development that children go through. It’s called Parallel Play.
Parallel play is when children playing alongside, but not with, another child. During their play, the children are often aware of and may incorporate another's activities into their own, but they do not actively engage with one another.
This type of play marks a child’s initial steps toward more active social interaction. Parallel play marks the 4th stage in sociologist Mildred Parten’s “six stages of play”. It usually starts around 2-years-old
Although it may seem like there isn’t much happening during parallel play, it offers a bridge towards more complex interactions. Children at this stage are beginning to be more aware of and engage more with others outside their family group. They are beginning to form attachments with others and testing the boundaries of who to trust.
Parallel play often involves children imitating each other, which allows them to pick up new skills and even expand their vocabulary (children often parrot what each other are saying during this type of play).
Learning about social boundaries is an essential component of your child’s development. Parallel play assists with this because it requires your child to focus on another’s action and conceptualise and reason about how and why they might be acting in the way they are. It doesn’t need to be deep thinking or philosophy, but this style of play does help form the beginnings of a child’s understanding that others behave and think differently to us.
Parallel play is an important stage of your child’s development. You’d be surprised at how much this ‘non-interactive’ method can teach your child. It’s also a great way for you to study and observe how your manages with different situations: conflict, sharing, surprise etc. The best thing you can do is arrange situations in which your child can be around other kids. Then all you have to do is sit back and watch their skills flourish.
References: Bakeman & Brownlee 1980; Parten 1932; Dyer & Moneta 2006