The evolution of parallel play

Play is vitally important to children’s development, and playing together is one of the first ways children start to build social skills that they’ll use for the rest of their lives. More than that, though, as anyone who has ever been a kid knows, playing together is how toddlers and children make their first friendships.

Since most parents were, at some point, children, and know this well, many parents find themselves a little bit concerned by their children’s earliest play dates, where neither of the young play-daters seem too interested in interacting with each other. This early lack of interest is a normal developmental step along the way to social behavior, though, and a few years down the line, most of those quiet, solitary players will be hard to drag away from their friends when it’s time to head home from the park.

For the very first playdates, Baby probably won’t even realize their friends are there. Closer to preschool age, they will probably start interacting closely and collaboratively with their little buddies. But in between these two stages of play, there’s a halfway stage that involves children playing near each other, and even in some of the same ways, without quite playing with each other.

What is parallel play?

Parallel play that starts as disinterest and develops into friendly side-by-side play, often in the same kind of game, or with the same types of toys or tools, usually starts to develop around 2 years old. This generally starts to show at around the same time that toddlers start to show an interest in other children. They don’t have the skills, or the inclination, for more cooperative play yet, but the interest that draws them to play near each other means they’re well on their way.

During the parallel play phase, toddlers build the skills they’ll need to move on to the next phase: cooperative play. These skills include turn-taking, sharing, empathy, and language skills, all of which are the building blocks that relationships are built upon far into the future.

Helping Baby build the skills for cooperative play

Parallel play is sort of a training-wheels stage for Baby on their way to playing with other children. As Baby’s interest in other children grows, growing skills for playing nicely together will only help them out.

  • Sharing: One of the big skills that makes for harmonious cooperative play is sharing. There are various schools of thought about whether children should be made to share, but no parent would argue that the state of mind that inspires sharing – patience, and caring about the feelings and ideas of other children – is a bad one for a toddler to develop. One way to encourage sharing is to talk to Baby about their own feelings, and about what the feelings of others might be. Giving Baby words to express and understand their own feelings, and a framework to help them understand the feelings of others can only help them start to take the feelings of others into account. You can also use praise to encourage Baby’s more generous impulses.
  • Turn-taking: Turn-taking is related to sharing, and it also requires patience, but it can also be a more complex idea for a toddler to grasp. You’ve actually been helping Baby start to master the rhythm of turn-taking since Baby started to develop language skills, just by talking back and forth to them, and letting them get used to the rhythm of conversation. You can help Baby even more by focusing on types of play, like throwing or rolling a ball back and forth, that become fun with give or take.
  • Language skills: The better Baby can communicate with their new friends, once that’s something they want to do, the better they’ll be able to figure out how to get along, theoretically. And the best way for you to help encourage Baby’s language skills is just to keep talking with them, especially when it comes to conversations full of give and take. Even if Baby isn’t always the chattiest kid around, giving them the space to respond to what you say is important, even if they doesn’t always take you up on it.
In social development, as in so many other things, there is such a wide range of “normal” development that even children exactly Baby’s age might be in completely different stages from them. Among other things, this means that the way Baby interacts with any one playmate doesn’t define their social development – they could just be getting their wires crossed.

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