Understanding Parallel Play And What It Means For Your Toddler

At around a year old, babies level up to parallel play.

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Two toddlers engaging in parallel play with blocks and other toys.

You might be surprised to learn that your kid already has a job. What’s more, you’ve already witnessed them working. Of course, you probably don’t remember seeing them pull on their business casual onesie, fill up the to-go cup with milk, and grab their Oshkosh briefcase. But they are getting shit done: playing. Up until now, your kid has been at an entry-level position of play. But by 12 months old, they get a cognitive promotion to middle management with a new activity called parallel play. Check it out.

The First Stages Of Play

Back in the day (we’re talking the 1920s here) groundbreaking sociologist Mildred Parten observed a bunch of children to figure out if there was something more to their activity. What she figured out was the key to child’s play (and it has nothing to do with a possessed My Buddy doll a knife). Here are the first stages of play:

Solitary Independent Play

For a while now your kid has been in the metaphorical mailroom at Playtime Co. They’ve been figuring out how stuff works — mostly fingers and limbs. If they play at all it’s solitary, independent play, and they’re completely engrossed in their own activity regardless of who’s around. It’s kind of like how you are when you’re playing Draft Kings.

Onlooker Play

Eventually, if you plop another kid beside them, your little player might engage in what’s called onlooker play. In this type of play, they’ll watch what other kids are doing to see how things are going down. However, they won’t join in with that Speak ‘N Spell — no matter how much they want to know what the cow says.

Parallel Play

Around toddlerhood, between 12 months and 2 years, your kid is getting pretty good at entertaining themselves. If you chuck them into a room with another buddy their same age, they’ll engage in parallel play. This is the first step in truly social play. It’s exactly what it sounds like: One of them will play in very close proximity to, but not with, the other. They’ve moved up from the mailroom to a nice cubicle.

The Importance Of Parallel Play

You might not think a lot is going on during these side-by-side play sessions, but it’s a surprisingly important part of your kid’s development. By being close to another little human while building block towers, they’re learning a bit about trust and making their first real push into social interaction.

That’s because while they play, they’re also quietly observing what their partner is doing. They’re forming an understanding of personhood outside of themselves and their parents. And they’re learning that other humans may not be so bad after all. Their playmate fills in gaps of understanding, and your kid will eventually start mimicking their pal. This can lead to new and interesting ways of play. If your kid’s friend is ahead of yours in development, they might even pick up a few new tricks.

Play Along

The thing about parallel play is that, when it’s going down, your kid is pretty darn content. Here’s a little parenting secret for you: you can leverage parallel play for your own sanity.

One nice thing is that you don’t have to do your full-on dog and pony show when you’re playing with them. You can actually engage in your own stuff and set them up to play close to you. They’ll be happy doing their thing, and you can join in every so often just to keep it going and let them know you’re there. Because play shouldn’t be work.

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