Understanding Parallel Play

Play is an important part of your child’s healthy development, and one of the chief ways your little one learns. When your toddler has a playdate or encounters other kids at the playground, you might notice that toddlers interact a little differently than older children. What toddlers tend to do is play in parallel — not directly with each other. Learn more about what parallel play is and what makes parallel play unique.

What Is Parallel Play?

Parallel play is when two or more toddlers play near one another or next to one another, but without interacting directly. They will sometimes be observing and even mimicking the other child. This type of play may begin between the ages of 18 months and 2 years.

What Is an Example of Parallel Play?

During toddlerhood, imitation and pretend games are common. An example of parallel play may be your child imitating what a playmate is doing while not seeming to interact with him directly. If the playmate is playing with blocks, your toddler may decide to play with blocks, too.

Keep in mind that sharing isn’t a concept that’s understood yet. For example, if there is only one truck and your toddler sees his playmate playing with it, he may decide to try to take it for himself. This could lead to conflict, which you’ll need to help resolve, perhaps by offering your child another toy to play with instead.

Why Is Parallel Play Important?

Even though it may seem odd to see your child playing independently next to a child instead of together with that child, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong. Parallel play is an important part of your child’s development because it helps her learn about relationships and how to behave around others.

As your child matures, you’ll see her playing more collaboratively, as well as using her imagination in more active ways. All of these types of play are important for her development.

How Can You Help Your Toddler With Parallel Play?

Here’s how you can help your toddler with parallel play:

  • Give your child opportunities to play with other children

  • In the beginning, limit these playmates to two or three children at a time

  • Be sure to monitor the activities so fights don’t break out over toys

  • Ensure the play area is safe

  • Never leave the children unattended.

In time, parallel play will boost her social skills and lead to your child interacting more directly with other children. Parallel playmates are your child's first friends.

What Is the Age Range for Parallel Play?

Parallel play could begin at about 18 months or 2 years of age and continue for another year or two. Each child is unique, however, and your little one may engage in this type of play for a slightly longer or shorter period.

Around the time your child is ready for preschool, you’ll notice her interacting more with other children.

The Bottom Line

Parallel play is just another step in your child’s healthy development. Even though it may look odd to you that your child is not interacting with his fellow playmates, playing alongside them is normal and is a way for your toddler to learn the basics of social interaction.

During this time, it’s a good idea to set up playdates for your child with children of a similar age. Although they may not play together, playdates are good opportunities for social and emotional growth, as they help your toddler start to learn how to form relationships.

Before you know it, you’ll notice your toddler interacting more directly with the children around him, whether it’s on a playdate, at preschool, or at the playground with the neighborhood kids. You’ll love seeing how his world expands with each new adventure and watching him make new friends.

How We Wrote This Article The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.