Parallel Play

Parallel play! Picture by the fabulous Kimchi Cuddles

So there’s this thing called parallel play. It’s one of four general stages of play that people are generally expected to progress through as they mature. So first of all, how about a quick run-down of those stages:

Solitary play: Basically, this is when you’re doing your own thing in your own way.

Parallel play: When you’re in the proximity of someone, and you’re each doing more or less the same thing, but you are not otherwise interacting. The above picture would be an example of this.

Associative play: When you’re with another person (or a group of people), doing the same thing, and interacting to share materials and whatnot. So everyone drawing pictures but sharing/passing around the paper, markers, etc would be a form of this.

Cooperative play: A more organized form of social play, such as playing a board game together.

These types of play are usually described in terms of age groups, with the idea that as a person gets older, they progress to increasingly social forms of play. What tends to not be explicitly stated but I kind of feel an undertone of is that the more social forms of play are somehow better. This article while ultimately paying some lip-service to the idea that parallel play is healthy among adults, still gave me an overall sense that parallel activities were bad. Or at least, less good than social activities.

Thing is, the more social of an activity I’m doing, the more draining I find it to be. Only I do actually like having friends and while I may ultimately want to spend the vast majority of my time alone, I do want to socialize now and again. Which basically is to say – I LOVE parallel play. Sitting on a couch with a friend while we both read but don’t talk to each other is, to me, a lovely way to spend an evening. When I socialize around crafting it is much the same way. Sometimes we will talk and interact, and sometimes we will simply each quietly do our own thing, in proximity to each other but not interacting.

This is a relaxing, pleasurable way for me to socialize. Because to me it IS socializing. I am (hopefully) enjoying the proximity and shared activity, and I find that meaningful. We don’t actually need to interact all the time.

I think parallel play does not get enough respect. This article actually listed it as a “warning sign” for autism in a toddler, even though it is a totally normal and developmentally appropriate way for a toddler to play.* Personally, I think parallel play is an awesome thing for adults to do as well. Actually, I suspect parallel play is fairly common amongst adults (though I cannot actually verify this), though it may not be the primary way adults interact. I also think that’s AWESOME! The picture I chose for this also illustrated the pressure I sometimes feel that I’m not “supposed” to be engaging in parallel play. If I’m with someone, I should be interacting with them, right? Well… maybe not always, really. Maybe we should consciously make room for this as a totally valid social activity. I could see someone claiming it as a problem if it were the only way I ever interacted (I’m not entirely sure I’d agree, but I at least think a solid argument could be made); but as a low-cost way to enjoy another person I think it’s great.

What do you think of parallel play? Is it something you like to do?

*Though that article also referred to autism as a “childhood epidemic,” so I’m not sure how seriously we should really take it.


Filed under opinion

5 responses to “Parallel Play

  1. Love the cartoon, love your great points, and LOVE parallel play! My boyfriend and I get plenty of typical social stuff in, but we both really value the time we can sit in the same room doing our own stuff on our own computers, or reading our own preferred books on the couch next to each other, or anything like that. We occasionally comment or share if we think the other would appreciate it or smile or whatever, but the real enjoyment comes from being comfortable and enjoying ourselves and enjoying the fact that the other person is comfortable and enjoying themselves as well.

  2. Possum


    One of the high points of my life socially was casually dropping by an acquaintance’s porch one summer longer ago than I’m going to admit to. She was in the middle of some woodworking project. As a woman with NVLD as well as Aspergers (both undiagnosed at the time), I couldn’t help a lot. We just “be”ed there together in companionable silence, me handing her the tools she needed. I considered that moment in time magic and was never able to replicate it, but the way you just articulated it and normalized it gives me what I need to create more of that in my life (in conjunction with an awesome therapist).

    Thank you. Thank you.

  3. I absolutely love just sitting in the same room with someone, both reading a book. It’s both soothing and bonding. And I think a lot of adults engage in this kind of behaviour. Why else drink a cup of coffee at a coffee shop, even though you’re not actively interacting with everyone else in the shop?

  4. Nadya

    I’ve really enjoyed reading this – thank you!

    I was thinking about how expectations of play or interactions might be culturally-dependent too. I’ve noticed that it is more ‘okay’ to sit and have a quiet drink with friends from some cultures (parallel play), whereas friends from other cultures might consider the thought of a moment of silence as a ‘failure’ in play, or of boredom.

    I wonder what role culture and media play in encouraging some forms of play and interactions, and whether this has created anxiety around whether more introverted forms of play are ‘normal.’

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