The evolution of parallel play
Age: 1 year 6 months
Play is vitally important to children’s development, and playing together is one of the first ways children start to build social skills that they’ll use for the rest of their lives. More than that, though, as anyone who has ever been a kid knows, playing together is how toddlers and children make their first friendships.
Since most parents were, at some point, children, and know this well, many parents find themselves a little bit concerned by their children’s earliest play dates, where neither of the young play-daters seem too interested in interacting with each other. This early lack of interest is a normal developmental step along the way to social behavior, though, and a few years down the line, most of those quiet, solitary players will be hard to drag away from their friends when it’s time to head home from the park.
For the very first playdates, your baby probably won't even realize her friends are there. Closer to preschool age, she will probably start interacting closely and collaboratively with her little buddies. But in between these two stages of play, there’s a halfway stage that involves children playing near each other, and even in some of the same ways, without quite playing with each other.
What is parallel play?
Parallel play that starts as disinterest and develops into friendly side-by-side play, often in the same kind of game, or with the same types of toys or tools, usually starts to develop around 2 years old. This generally starts to show at around the same time that toddlers start to show an interest in other children. They don’t have the skills, or the inclination, for more cooperative play yet, but the interest that draws them to play near each other means they’re well on their way.
During the parallel play phase, toddlers build the skills they’ll need to move on to the next phase: cooperative play. These skills include turn-taking, sharing, empathy, and language skills, all of which are the building blocks that relationships are built upon far into the future.
Helping your baby build the skills for cooperative play
Parallel play is sort of a training-wheels stage for your baby on her way to playing with other children. As your baby’s interest in other children grows, growing skills for playing nicely together will only help her out.
- Sharing: One of the big skills that makes for harmonious cooperative play is sharing. There are various schools of thought about whether children should be made to share, but no parent would argue that the state of mind that inspires sharing - patience, and caring about the feelings and ideas of other children - is a bad one for a toddler to develop. One way to encourage sharing is to talk to your baby about her own feelings, and about what the feelings of others might be. Giving your baby words to express and understand her own feelings, and a framework to help her understand the feelings of others can only help her start to take the feelings of others into account. You can also use praise to encourage your baby’s more generous impulses.
- Turn-taking: Turn-taking is related to sharing, and it also requires patience, but it can also be a more complex idea for a toddler to grasp. You’ve actually been helping your baby start to master the rhythm of turn-taking since your baby started to develop language skills, just by talking back and forth to her, and letting her get used to the rhythm of conversation. You can help your baby even more by focusing on types of play, like throwing or rolling a ball back and forth, that become fun with give or take.
- Language skills: The better your baby can communicate with her new friends, once that’s something she wants to do, the better they’ll be able to figure out how to get along, theoretically. And the best way for you to help encourage your baby’s language skills is just to keep talking with her, especially when it comes to conversations full of give and take. Even if your baby isn’t always the chattiest kid around, giving her the space to respond to what you say is important, even if she doesn’t always take you up on it.
In social development, as in so many other things, there is such a wide range of “normal” development that even children exactly your baby’s age might be in completely different stages from her. Among other things, this means that the way your baby interacts with any one playmate doesn't define her social development - they could just be getting their wires crossed.
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