Parallel play and cooperative play.

Parents of young children are familiar with parallel play. An example of parallel play is when two kids are sitting in the same area playing with cars. Occasionally they lean over and look at the other kid but, while they seem to be not interacting, they are still playing with the same thing in the same space. When the first child gives up the cars and moves onto a new play area or toy, the second child follows. This is parallel play.

Parallel play is the first real “play” a child does. Before parallel play, the children are simply observers. Sometime in the preschool years a child changes from parallel play to cooperative play – playing with the kids and the toys together.

Some educators think that when a child moves to cooperative play they will abandon parallel play. Since some educators think this, some parents think this too. Thus, when they see their child not moving into cooperative play, but staying with parallel play, they worry that their child is not developing.

Dr. Robinson, at BYU, discovered that children use parallel play to ease their way into a group before engaging in cooperative play. This can be exemplified by preschoolers in a sandbox. When there is a group of kids in the sandbox playing together, and a new kid comes, the new kid first observes the group, then plays in the sand next to the group (parallel play), before finally joining the group (cooperative play). In fact, parallel play does not really exit the scene. Children will most often use parallel play until they are about 5 years old, but parallel play exists when children play video games, work on the same thing (like assignments) but at their own desks. Parallel play never really goes away, but can become dominated by cooperative play.

Collaborative play includes behaviors such as sharing, taking turns, following directions, following rules, and negotiating. Collaborative play is where everyone works towards a similar goal (think kids playing knights and dragons, putting on a play, or working on a puzzle together). This stage of play involves recognizing that others are as important as they are and how to work with other people. Many social skills are mastered on the playground and in the sandbox during collaborative play.

And it is play that teaches these skills.

So make sure there is enough time in your child’s schedule for play. All of us just want the best for our children, and this can mean scheduling a lot of classes and structured time for them because we think that is best. However, kids need a chance to develop social skills with other kids while they are playing.  Because of this, unstructured playtime is just as important as structured time.



Santrock, John (1999.). Life-Span Development. New York: McGraw Hill, Inc..

Vasta, Ross (1999). Child Psychology. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc..

Berk, Laura (2004). Development of the Life-Span. Boston: Allyn & Bacon

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