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profile picture of Natasha Burgert, MD, FAAP, pediatrician at Pediatric Associates in Kansas City, Missouri
Natasha Burgert, MD, FAAP, pediatrician at Pediatric Associates in Kansas City, Missouri

Parallel Play?

Why does my toddler practically ignore his “friend” during play dates? When will they actually play with each other?

Yup, your son and his friend are engaging a classic example of parallel play. Toddlers are interested in other kids, but aren’t yet capable of social give-and-take, so they play independently, side-by-side. But don’t quit the play dates. Even though you don’t see much interaction between the kids, they’re still learning from each other.

“When kids parallel play, they see how the other child is playing with an object, and can pattern that behavior,” says Natasha Burgert, MD, FAAP, pediatrician at Pediatrics Associates in Kansas City, Missouri. “‘He dropped his toy; now I’m going to go over and play with it.’ That’s social interaction for toddlers.”

To help play dates go smoothly, stock up on multiple, similar toys. “Don’t just have one big, red truck,” says Burgert. “Have a couple of trucks. Anticipate that the kids are doing to do things side-by-side and not share very well. Make sure you have similar toys, so they can do the same thing at the same time. That way, they can develop an interactive relationship.”

Around age three, your child’s play will naturally evolve into interactive, imaginative play. There’s no way to hurry along that development, so enjoy the parallel play stage while it lasts.

More from The Bump:

How to Teach a Toddler Better Social Skills

Teaching a Toddler to Share Toys

Get Your Toddler to Do What They Don't Want to Do