Douglas and Jaelyn are plunked down next to each other playing with dinosaurs. They don't seem to be interacting, but every now and again, one of them will check out the other. And when Jaelyn segues to a different play area, Douglas follows.
Parents might think that parallel play—when kids play next to, but not with, each other—is just a curious phase in child development. But really it's part of a continuum. Douglas and Jaelyn have already matriculated from onlooker play (think infant as observer) to solitary play (a 1-year-old entertaining herself). Showing up between the ages of 2 and 3, parallel play may not look much different from solitary play, but it's as different as eating breakfast home alone and sitting quietly at a crowded diner counter.
For decades, child psychologists thought that kids who could play cooperatively (chatting, tendering toys back and forth) would no longer bother with the parallel technique. They were wrong.
Clyde Robinson, Ph.D., a professor of human development at Brigham Young University, discovered a few years ago that preschoolers use parallel play to ease into a group. Say a few kids are stacking blocks into a rocket ship, and a newcomer wants to join in. First he'll inspect the group. Then he'll pick up some blocks, not interacting but still keeping tabs on the kids. Are they friendly? Smiling? If the cues look good, he'll transition from parallel to cooperative play, perhaps by asking, "Can I put a block on top?" "Parallel play is a bridge between onlooker and cooperative play," says Robinson. "It's a safe haven."