The Complete Guide To Onlooker Play

By Paula McLaren •  Updated: 02/15/22 •  7 min read  •  Toddler » Toddler Play

It’s well known that adults like to ‘people watch’ when they’re out and about…

And it’s the same for young toddlers!

But for them, it’s called onlooking!

The simple act of watching, learning and taking in what others are doing is a natural part of our lives and for a young toddler, it’s a vital part of their play development!

Let’s dive right in!

6 Stages Of Play

Here’s a quick list of the 6 stages of play so we’re all on the same page!

At What Age Do Children Engage In Onlooker Play?

Onlooker play is most commonly seen in children between 2 and 3 years of age.

You may be concerned that your little one is not playing with others or acting shy or struggling to fit in at this stage…

BUT the time spent engaging in onlooker play and observing from the sidelines is a necessary and ideal learning experience to gain huge insights into how other children interact!

The 3 Characteristics Of Onlooker Play

Onlooker play differs from solitary play in that young children now take an active interest in what others are doing, rather than being absorbed in their own play. 

Despite this, they will still avoid playing with other children.

So how do you identify when your child is engaging in this type of play?

Well, here are 3 of the most obvious signs your little one is engaging in onlooking:

  1. They will stand and watch other children playing from a distance at the park or playgroup.
  2. They may stand close by and listen to what other children are saying, but not engage in the conversation.
  3. They might comment on or ask questions about the play they are observing, but they will not actively participate.

Are Spectator Play And Onlooker Play The Same Thing?


Onlooker play and spectator play are exactly the same thing. They are just different ways of labelling the same type of observational play.

What Is The Difference Between Onlooker Play And Parallel Play?

Onlooking is the type of play that comes BEFORE parallel play in your little one’s play development journey.

The main difference between these two types of play is that in parallel play the child plays alongside others often engaging in the same activity but does not play with others in a cooperative manner.

While onlooking is an observational development where children watch and learn how others play.

What Are The 5 Benefits Of Onlooker Play?

Onlooker play is hugely important for young children as they learn a great deal from observing how their peers interact with each other. 

During this type of play, children will also:

Benefits of Onlooker Play
  1. Build cognitive skills by observing and understanding the actions of others
  2. Improves their listening skills and observational skills in general
  3. Learn social and emotional skills by watching how other children behave
  4. Build their confidence to begin playing alongside others in the future
  5. Learn problem-solving and negotiation skills

As you can see, onlooking is a vital component of your little one’s development journey!

So how can we encourage our children to engage in onlooker play?

3 Simple Ways To Encourage Onlooker Play Development

Unlike other play stages, onlooker play does not have specific play activities. 

It is something that happens naturally while your child stops what they are doing and closely watches what other children are doing.

Situations where you may observe your child engaging in this type of play are:

Activities that a child in this stage of play may find particularly interesting are:

There are also some things you can do to help your child to transition from onlooker play and build their confidence and abilities to interact with other children:

1. Arrange Playdates

Playdates are a great way to get your children ready for parallel and cooperative play

They will allow your child to engage in onlooking and get used to being close to and playing alongside other children in a safe environment.

2. Take Them To The Park

Going to the park is another great opportunity for your little one to engage in onlooker play. 

They can learn a great deal from watching other children in this setting and it’s always great to get a dose of fresh air every day and engage in some outdoor activities!

3. Join A Playgroup

Again, this is a perfect environment for onlooker play where your little one can feel safe with you at hand to watch older children interacting with each other.

Playgroups also allow you to meet other parents at similar stages on their parenting journey creating a safe space for your all to support one another.

Games To Boost Your Little One’s Play Development

As I mentioned earlier…

There are no ‘specific’ games that fall under the title of onlooking as onlooker play is observational rather than active… 


In order to help your child onto the next stages of play you can encourage them to do the following:

1. Offer Open-Ended Toys To Play

Open-ended toys encourage problem-solving and imagination which are important skills to have when playing with other children.

These wooden building blocks from Migargle are a great way to get children to play alongside each other while giving them plenty of opportunities to watch what other children are doing.

They can choose to join in or just comment from the sidelines!

My Favourite
Migargle Wooden City Building Blocks Set

Offering endless possibilities to create a city alongside one another, your toddler and their play companions will love this wooden building block set. BPA-free, lead-free, phthalate-safe and non-toxic, it is also a great choice for parents wanting to choose the best toys for their little ones!

Buy Now
We earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no additional cost to you.

2. Encourage Role Play

Roleplay such as dressing up or having a pretend tea party are great ways to improve your child’s imagination and social skills.

And this dressing up set from Born Toys is great for young toddlers. It will build their confidence and imagination as well provide hours of fun!

Born Toys Dress Up & Pretend Play 3-in-1 Costume Set

Provide the perfect opportunity for your child to imagine, explore and play through the art of role-play with 3 amazing gender-neutral costumes!

Buy Now
We earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no additional cost to you.

3. Play Interactive Games With Your Children

By playing with your young child you will be teaching them how to play with others. 

Games that involve simple turn-taking and cooperation between you and your child are perfect for teaching them the art of how to play successfully with others!

The Monkey Around Game is perfect for teaching toddler’s gross motor skills, hand-eye coordination, imitation, vocabulary and social-emotional skills through fun play!

Monkey Around Game By Peaceable Kingdom

Engage with your child through simple and playful Monkey-ing Around fun to boost their gross motor skills, hand-eye coordination, imitation, vocabulary and social-emotional skills!

Buy Now
We earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no additional cost to you.

Common Concerns About Onlooker Play 

When our children are engaging in onlooker play we may be tempted to think they are feeling shy or struggling to fit in…

However, it is not always as it seems!

As a parent, we need to concentrate on the benefits of this stage of play and appreciate its importance in our little one’s social development. 

Don’t try and force your child to interact with other children at this stage. 

They are learning invaluable lessons in how to behave in a group of their peers and will gain huge developmental benefits from observing rather than doing.

And that in itself should put any concerns about onlooker play to rest.

If, however, you’re still worried about your child’s development, I advise seeking out specialist advice to help answer your concerns.

Further Reading

If you found this article about onlooker play interesting, be sure to give these articles a read too!

And until next time, with love and support, Happy Parenting!

Author Image

Paula McLaren

Paula McLaren - Norland Nurse NNEB RSH is the founder of Teething to Tantrums and has been in the childcare industry as a Norland Nanny since 1982. Since then, her mission has been to help parents become the best they can possibly be. And each year, she continues to help more families understand their child's development, the trials and joys of parenting and of course, how to care for their little ones.

Keep Reading