Around age 1 ½ to 2, your toddler is more likely to play beside another child than with them. Known as “parallel play,” this is how they get comfortable with other children and learn valuable social skills ❤️
What is parallel play and when do children do it?
Parallel play is playing near other children but not with them. It typically emerges around 18 to 24 months. Some researchers describe parallel play as a bridge to more advanced types of social play. Even beyond the toddler years, it can give children a way to ease into playing with another child or a group.
Why is parallel play important?
Observing and imitating are powerful ways of learning. As your toddler engages in parallel play, they can see what the other child is doing and may even try to copy them. Playing near instead of with someone else still gives them a sense of connection—the feeling of “we’re doing something together.” Sometimes children smile, talk, and even pass items back and forth during parallel play, giving them experience with early turn taking and other peer social skills.
4 ways to support your toddler’s parallel play
1. Try playing along
It’s tempting to encourage your toddler to play with their friend, but let them go at their own pace. Even if your child is not actively engaged in play, they can learn by observing. You can also model how to play next to their friend. Say, “Look, Sara is lining up the blocks. I think I’ll give that a try, too. Want to join us?” It’s okay if they say no or want to explore something else.
2. Lower the stimulation
The extra noise and activity of a big group could feel overwhelming, so aim to include a maximum of one child for every year of age: one friend for your 1-year-old, two for your 2-year-old, etc. Your toddler may feel more comfortable interacting—and parallel play may emerge more naturally—in a small group. Keep background noise like music and other distractions to a minimum as your toddler plays with their friend. If “dance party” is your parallel play activity, follow it with a lower-stimulation activity, like reading a book together or eating a snack.
3. Provide duplicate playthings
It isn’t fair to ask toddlers to play cooperatively with one toy. Whenever possible, set your toddler and their friend up for success with duplicate playthings. Multiples of similar items encourage toddlers to play near each other in similar ways. Blocks, puzzles, art supplies, dolls, or trucks are all things that you may have in duplicate. Balls and sidewalk chalk are great outdoor options.
4. Give each child a zone
Encourage your toddler to share a joyful moment playing with their friend by defining each child’s space. Borrow a Montessori strategy and provide the same open-ended activity for both children. For example, for a transferring activity, you could give each child their own tray with a clean, empty container (yogurt tubs work well), a spoon, and some dry pasta in fun shapes. Knowing that their materials and space are protected may make your child more willing to try a new activity with their playmate.
Learn more about the research
Bakeman, R., & Brownlee, J. R. (1980). The strategic use of parallel play: A sequential analysis. Child Development, 873-878.
Parten, M. B. (1932). Social participation among pre-school children. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 27(3), 243.
Robinson, C. C., Anderson, G. T., Porter, C. L., Hart, C. H., & Wouden-Miller, M. (2003). Sequential transition patterns of preschoolers’ social interactions during child-initiated play: Is parallel-aware play a bidirectional bridge to other play states?. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 18(1), 3-21.
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