The Complete Guide To Parallel Play

By Paula McLaren •  Updated: 05/21/22 •  8 min read  •  Toddler » Toddler Play

So, your child is no longer playing independently… But they’re not quite playing with other children just yet either…

Is this the beginning of parallel play?

Let’s break down everything you need to know about this stage of play to ensure you and your little one get the most out of these playtime interactions!

What Is Parallel Play?

Parallel Play Age Range

Parallel play is most common in toddlers between 2 and 3½ years old.

What Age Does Parallel Play Stop?

Parallel play usually ends by 3½ years old. However, some children will continue to fall back into parallel play habits as they grow because they feel safe playing this way.

What Stage Is Parallel Play?

Parallel play is the fourth stage of play that your child will progress through as they grow up.

If you’re interested in the 6 stages of play, check out the below posts to learn more:

Why Is Parallel Play Important?

Parallel play is important for children because it allows them to gain the confidence and knowledge to move from solitary play toward cooperative play in a safe and non-intimidating way. 

Children engaging in parallel play will now start to see themselves as part of a social group, but they will still be very self-centred. 

This is a very important transition to move through as it will form the basis of how children will play socially with others in the future.

Young children may still grab another’s toy, as they do not understand the concept of sharing yet, and this can easily end in tears.

Parallel play, therefore, is the perfect stage to start teaching your little one about the intricate and important concept of sharing and taking turns.

What Are The Features Of Parallel Play?

So what are the main characteristics of parallel play?

  1. Observing and copying. During playtime, children will often mimic what other children are doing by engaging in the same type of play or by copying their actions.
  2. Playing alongside other children. Children engaged in this type of play will happily play alongside other children and enjoy being in their company… but they do not actively engage or participate in their play.
  3. Playing independently and not being inclined to share. During parallel play, your little one will still not be inclined to share their toys and they will prefer to play on their own.
  4. Show emerging social skills. As time progresses, your child will learn a lot from their parallel play observations and their socialising skills will start to develop. 

How Do You Help Your Toddler With Parallel Play?

Introducing parallel play into your little one’s life should be simple and enjoyable.

  1. Understand what to expect from this stage of play.
  2. Stimulate your child’s curiosity with fun games and enthusiasm.
  3. Demonstrate the new activities in a fun way.
  4. Practise taking turns and sharing as this can be a tricky skill to learn.
  5. Remain present with your little one so they feel confident to play alongside you.
  6. Schedule playdates with family friends who have children of a similar age. Ideally, start with only 1 playmate.
  7. Practise, practise, practise!

What Is The Difference Between Parallel And Associative Play?

Parallel play differs from associative play with one key difference… 

How children interact with each other.

During parallel play, children will not engage with other children but they will be happy to be alongside them all whilst doing their own thing.

On the other hand, associative play is when children will start to comment, ask questions, and interact on a minimal level. 

You may begin to notice your child share their toys during associative play too.

TOP TIP: Stages of play do not happen in isolation and will often overlap and be ever present even as your child grows up. 

Parallel Play Benefits

Even though parallel play is independently based, there are still many benefits your child will gain by engaging in this type of play:

7 Benefits Of Parallel Play
  1. Improves gross and fine motor skills. Play is all exploration and investigation. So whether it’s through sand play or painting, your little one’s motor skills will be thriving every day.
  2. Helps with language development. As your little one observes and listens to others, they will be increasing their vocabulary and learning how to use new words every day.
  3. Improves listening skills. Along with developing language skills, engaging in parallel play will also greatly improve your child’s listening skills as they watch and observe others.
  4. Teaches children about boundaries and social interaction. Your child will watch and learn how other children respect boundaries, socially interact, and be nice to one another.
  5. Encourages early sharing. Watching others during this type of play will teach your child how to understand the concept and benefits of sharing.
  6. Allows the exploration of emotions. Children going through parallel play have the opportunity to explore lots of emotions: from joy to frustration, wonder to sadness. They need this time to learn how to process and deal with these feelings themselves before learning how to take others into consideration during associative and cooperative play.
  7. Improves problem solving and creativity. As children watch how others work together to get things done and observe how they can achieve different results when doing the same activity alongside them, they will learn a wealth of new skills every day!

Parallel Play Examples

Here are a couple of examples of how you can set up parallel play activities for your little one:

1. Draw Or Paint A Picture Together 

Setting up a creative activity such as painting or drawing where you both create a picture next to one another (separately but using the same equipment) is a great way to expose your little one to parallel play. 

Comment on what they are doing but don’t interfere or sway them to create a certain image. 

Let them watch and comment on what you are creating and enjoy the process!

2. Organise A Playdate

Exposing your little one to social situations with one or two other children is a great way to start introducing your child to this type of play too. 

Your child can then safely play alongside other children and observe what they are doing at their own pace.

3. Play With Building Blocks

Putting out a substantial set of building blocks and encouraging children to use them to build their own creations is another great way to facilitate parallel play. 

Each child can use the shared blocks to produce their own creation.

This 100-piece wooden block set from Melissa And Doug is perfect for these activities.

My All-Time Favourite Building Block Set
Melissa & Doug Wooden 100 Pcs Building Blocks Set

No nursery is complete without wooden blocks. They provide hours of fun and education through play from honing fine motor skills, improving problem-solving, developing creativity and teaching colours and shapes. My favourite is this colourful set from Melissa and Doug.

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4. Explore Through Sand And Water Play 

Sand and water play provide the perfect opportunity to engage in parallel play. 

Children do not need to work together to get the most out of these activities as they can happily play independently alongside each other and observe and comment on what each other is doing, should they so wish.

5. Visit A Playgroup

In a playgroup situation, encourage your child to watch what the other children are doing. 

You can even engage with the other children by asking questions about what they are creating or playing with whilst your little one observes the interaction. 

This is great to show your child how parallel play works. 

Occasionally, you may need to take the lead and go and sit near other children and play alongside them until your little one feels comfortable doing it alone. 

REMEMBER: Don’t force your child to play alongside others if they are not ready. Although children move forward through the 6 stages of play, they will still engage in previous stages at times. Therefore, they will often engage in solitary play or stand and observe a situation before engaging in this type of play. 

Best Toys For Parallel Play

Below are some of my top toys to help encourage your child to engage in parallel play:

1. Sand Pit

Boost your little one’s fine and gross motor skills whilst helping them learn how to play alongside other children with a sturdy, long-lasting sand pit.

Our Pick
Step2 Naturally Playful Sand Table

I love that this table has a tough moulded lid that ensures the sand stays dry during wet weather but means your child can still play with the table regardless!

I also love the durability and easy-to-clean design of this sandpit too. It's perfect for sensory exploration for children of all ages!

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2. Wooden Toy City Set

As well as Melissa and Doug’s 100-piece wooden block set, you can open up the opportunity to boost your child’s cognitive and sharing abilities by encouraging them to create a wooden town alongside their peers.

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!

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3. Chalk Set

Love creative activities, but worry about the mess? Let me introduce: chalk.

Perfect for play playdates, children of all ages will love to create images on the driveway or on paper with a set of vibrant chalk sticks.

Here they can develop their fine motor skills, observe what others are doing and begin to learn the concept of sharing by asking for different colours.

Plus at the end of it all, you can wash it all away!

My Favourite
Crayola 48 Washable Sidewalk Chalk Set: Assorted Bright Colors

This set of vibrant chalk sticks will give your little one endless opportunities to get creative! With an anti-roll shape, washable properties and a bright array of colours, it is the perfect companion for any play session.

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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.

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