In 1929, Mildred Parten established the six stages of play through which children progress during their first five years. Parallel play is the fourth stage of play according to Parten. It is a significant stage for toddlers (2+ years of age), following “onlooker play” during which children observe other’s playing, and preceding “associative play” during which children demonstrate increased interest in their play partner.
Parallel play is defined as children playing independently in the same area, with the same materials, but with minimal engagement with one another. While it may appear that our children are playing completely independently of one another, in actuality they are being very observant. At this stage, the child is becoming increasingly aware of the presence of his peers. He acknowledges with increasing interest that his peer is playing similarly to him and will begin to imitate based on this peer modeling.
As outlined below, during parallel play, children are exposed to opportunities for growth in a number of domains, expanding beyond just play.
Up until this point, the majority of the child’s socialization has likely taken place in the home and with adults. The emergence of parallel play skills supports the child’s ability to overcome fear and mistrust associated with being outside of the home. The child has the freedom to engage in play and determine the level of interaction that feels most safe.
The child is not only observing how their peers play but also how they act and feel. Through play, the child begins to understand the cause-and-effect relationship of actions and emotions. For example, if a child stacks his tallest block tower and celebrates this success, a peer engaged in parallel play will likely learn to take part in the excitement, clapping, or cheering. Likewise, if the child’s tower is knocked down and the builder cries in disappointment, there is a good chance that a peer engaged in parallel play will likely begin to cry as well, sharing in the upset.
Children are now sharing play materials and physical space. In their time observing their peers, the child will undoubtedly demonstrate an interest in another’s toys. While it is not expected that children at this stage will cooperatively share with one another, the child is becoming more aware of himself in the context of others. Likewise, the child is determining what amount of space he feels comfortable playing and what amount of space begins to feel like an encroachment. For both space and materials, children learn what makes them feel comfortable and the need to assert themselves to maintain this comfort.
Not only will a child’s intrinsic desire to imitate peers contribute to language development, but additionally the child will now feel the need to assert his wants and needs in the context of others. He can no longer depend on his caregiver to know exactly what he needs at any given time. He is now expected to communicate with those around him. Don’t be surprised if your child learns to say an assertive “mine” as he gains an understanding of sharing during this stage.
At NAPA, understanding the stages of play development greatly informs the therapeutic intervention across departments and is a significant consideration of our early intervention center-based program. At home, understanding the stages of play can help caregivers create an environment conducive to the growth of play skills. Children are constantly observing and learning from their environment; therefore, caregivers constantly have the opportunity to set a good example by engaging in play, narrating events, and exposing them to different settings and people.
Samantha Berger is a pediatric occupational therapist at NAPA Center Los Angeles. When not engaging her clients through play, Samantha can be found balancing her love for ice cream with spin or barre classes or trying to cuddle her dog, Cassidy, who would much rather have her personal space.
At NAPA Center, we believe in creating individualized programs that address every child’s specific needs across a range of different therapies, including play therapy sessions. Every child is unique, which means implementing unique therapy programs is the only way to help them truly reach their full potential. Contact us today to discover how NAPA can help your child or loved one.