Signs & Symptoms

Parallel Play

Is your child playing next to kids rather than with kids?

Some children struggle to play with other kids. What’s the matter? Your child may be having difficulty with companionship. From approximately ages two to three, children tend to move from parallel play, that is, playing beside but not engaging with other children, to cooperative play, which establishes companionship, i.e., friendship.

So, playing side by side with little social interaction is fine for your toddler, but by age 4 or 5, we would begin to be concerned that cooperative play is not emerging. Some children in later preschool years roam the playground alone, searching for bugs and dirt. They seem to be in their own world, and they do not run with the pack or engage with peers.

Other children play close by but don’t pay much attention to the other children and do not try to play with them. When guided to join the group, this child might join and follow quietly, or he might steal the ball and run away with the game not knowing that he is not playing “with” the kids. As other children start to appear frustrated, our game disruptor might be totally oblivious to the situation.

What do challenges with Parallel Play look like?

  • Preferring to be near other children but failing to engage with them?
  • Appearing shy and uncertain how to join play?
  • Seeming happy to play alone?
  • Appearing to be ‘in his own world?’
  • Engaging well in chase or wrestling but not understanding pretend play?
  • Acting bossy or controlling always needing to have his own way?

Why is Parallel Play happening?

Parallel play means playing next to someone else, rather than with someone else. In very young children, age 3 and younger, this trait is fine. By the time this child is 4 or older, we want to see kids to start playing together. They may share toys and objects, cooperate in games, and show that they are having fun together with their facial expressions and body language. Pretend play involves imagining that objects are something beyond the most obvious use. If pretend play is a concern, you will notice kids are literal in their play and refuse to pretend. The individual may make comments like, “That plate is too small for his hand,” or “He could never fit in that spaceship.” Cooperative play is the ability to engage with other people in games or activities. It involves being a good sport and including others. Cooperative and pretend play are important skills for kids to develop in preschool and throughout the primary school years.

How can I manage Parallel Play at home?

Plan social activities for your child around his or her interests. Join a Lego or Robotics club; pursue the swim team or horseback riding. Find ways to have your child engage socially without leading to failure. When activities are structured and turn-taking, back-and-forth interaction can be modeled, and children can improve their social skills.

You may choose to avoid soccer teams or baseball teams, which are large activities that require a lot of cooperation. Find something with an individual component but also social opportunities. Social groups in your community or at your child’s school may be a way for him or her to learn social skills and have these skills modeled for him or her. Provide breaks and down time, but give your child social learning experiences.

There are a variety of great resources for social skills to help children learn about the importance of polite greetings, social smiles, active listening and conversation skills [9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14].

How can Clear Child Psychology help with Parallel Play?

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his or her learning, relationships, or happiness, it’s time to seek professional help.

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