Have you ever been to a playdate or to a park with toddlers and noticed that two kids start playing side-by-side in the sandbox, without interacting? If the answer is yes, then you’ve witnessed what child psychologists call parallel play. For this blog, we’ll dive into what parallel play is and why it is important for your child’s development during the second, third, and fourth year of his or her life.

Parallel play describes when two kids start playing alongside each other without playing together. They are brought close only because they are sharing the same room or toy, but aren’t actually paying attention to one another or trying to influence the other’s actions. This normal behavior precedes symbolic and interactive play, and is usually first observed after the second birthday and until the preschool years.

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Developmental psychologists, drawing from the work of Mildred Parten, agree that parallel play is the fourth of six stages of play that give way to peer sociability in toddlers and preschoolers, after they’ve mastered unoccupied play, solitary play, and onlooker play. From this stepping stone, children learn how to play together and actively share toys in what’s called associative play. Then, they progress to cooperative play, in which symbols are shared and complementary roles are assigned to each participant so that a common purpose can be attained, like saving an imaginary princess or completing a task.

Before small children acquire the social and emotional skills needed to cooperate with peers, this type of alongside play is how a child gains confidence and gets familiarized with playing and being near other kids, while still being in charge of his or her individualized activity. At this transitory stage, it is actually pretty common for kids to mimic one another! So next time you see your little one playing alongside other kids without showing much interest or group involvement, know that they are silently learning valuable social skills from one another.