As parents, we all know that play is an important part of our child’s development. That is why I panicked when my eldest just watched other kids play when she was first enrolled in daycare. She wouldn’t join in. Occasionally, I would show up a little earlier than pickup time, and peek from the corner of the room to see how she’s doing. She would play, but she was always in her own world. She didn’t seem to pay attention to other kids around her, and didn’t make much effort to interact with her peers either. As a concerned parent, I started to google and stumbled upon the concept of parallel play. It was then I realized that this is just a natural and important stage of my daughter’s development. Phew! At least there was an explanation for her odd behavior!
In fact, parallel play is often the first step for kids to form social relationships with people outside the family. It is one of the six stages of play that occurs as a child moves from solitary play to cooperative play with coordinated activities, communication, and rules. Every child is different, but parallel play usually emerges when they’re about 2 or 3 years old.
To someone who doesn’t understand it, seeing a child engage in parallel play might look strange. However, there are many benefits to parallel play like the following:
- It allows kids to develop their fine and gross motor skills
- It gives children the freedom to express their feelings and set their preferences for things
- By observing other kids within close proximity, they learn to understand social interactions
- It teaches children how to set boundaries
- It teaches kids to learn how to share their toys
Therefore, as parents, we should encourage parallel play in toddlers with the following tips:
1. Understand the 6 different stages of play.
They include unoccupied play, solitary play, onlooker play, parallel play, associative play, cooperative play. As your child grows, they’ll be able to engage in a wider variety of play. Keep in mind that each stage is valuable, and your child will probably shift between them daily.
2. Start with small sessions.
If your child has a shy personality and needs to warm up to the possibility of playing with others, let them start with people they know. Have her sit alongside another sibling, or just a parent. It can help prepare her when someone else of her own age joins her. As a parent, you can also set up something for yourself to do like an adult coloring book while your kid plays with their own toys a few feet away.
3. Schedule play dates.
When your child is ready for play dates (usually this is after 2 years old), schedule play dates and give your child opportunities to play with other children. You could start by inviting just a child over to your house and limit the time to one to two hours. Arranging play dates out in public could also be an option – bring your child to local classes in a public library or a play area in a mall. However, home setting is the best because that’s where your child is most comfortable.
4. Monitor play dates.
Don’t just let kids play by themselves. Adult supervision is encouraged because sometimes fights might happen.
5. Make sure there’s enough toys.
No one likes to be left out, so make sure you have enough toys for everyone to be doing something at the same time. However, don’t bring out too many toys because it might overwhelm the children.
6. Don’t force children to engage but stimulate curiosity.
No one likes to be forced to play. As parents, we should make them think it’s their idea, and your toddler will probably be more enthusiastic. Instead of asking them to play with another child, use questions and comments to engage them.
7. Demonstrate activities.
Under a group setting, show children how to play with a toy. It is usually more effective than telling because kids don’t always understand complicated instructions. For example, start sculpting a figure with Play-Doh and then ask if the other kids want to join in.
8. Encourage children to take turns.
Even as an adult, I sometimes struggle with the idea of sharing my possessions. The concept of sharing can be challenging for people of all ages. Therefore, it is important to teach children this skill when they are young. Use parallel play to introduce the idea of taking turns. Make a game out of it.
9. Keep children together in a same room.
Keeping them in the same general area creates more opportunities for parallel play. Picture a daycare of preschool setting. Kids are usually in the same room, but they are split into groups. This allows them to play with different toys. Even though they are doing their own thing, they are also not playing entirely alone. Sooner or later, they will interact with each other.
In summary, parallel play is an important step in your child’s development. It might look strange to you when your kid is playing but not interacting with other children, or just playing alongside them, but it is completely normal. As parents, we should encourage parallel play. Before you know it, your toddler will start to interact with other children around her. You’ll be amazed at how fast she will be making friends at school then!