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What is Toddler Parallel Play? Examples And Tips For This Wonderful Learning Stage

Child DevelopmentParent Resources

9th December 2021

Toddlers are a fascinating but misunderstood age group. Their rate of development, curiosity, and testing are out of this world. While this is a wonderful age, it can often leave parents guessing about what activities to do at home with their toddlers or what’s behind toddler play and behavior in general. One toddler term heard often is “parallel play” and it’s pretty much the majority of what toddlers during play/learning time do.

Have you noticed that your toddler prefers to participate in a process but not directly share or collaborate? That is parallel play.

Have you noticed your toddler vocalizing toys and items they are playing with, but not really to “stop and talk”? That also is parallel play.

Do you see your toddler test ideas over and over again and want them to keep their autonomy during play? Once again, parallel play.

Parallel play serves as a link between observational and associative play. We advise parents to refrain from dismissing this play by rushing them to share too soon. Language development, gross and fine motor development, expression, autonomy, learning about boundaries, and eventually working together are all benefits of parallel play (but again, try not to force this last piece too soon).

Here is an example adults can identify with. Imagine being in a new workout class led by a competent instructor. First, you may observe the trainer’s steps to ensure proper form. However, before declaring yourself a master, you test the moves at your own pace, over and over again, until you have the rhythm down. Parallel play is similar to this stage of development, it’s a stage between observing and knowing. 

As you can see it is a fascinating type of play when it comes to learning-by-doing. Here are some no-cost and purchasable ideas to facilitate practicing parallel play at home.

No Cost Ideas That Encourage Parallel Play

  • Create a small kitchen adjacent to where you cook. Cooking is a popular parallel play activity with toddlers. While you’re preparing dinner, your toddler can play with playdough and toy dishes nearby. A play kitchen can be as simple as a repurposed cardboard box or a few items on a table. The point is that your toddler will enjoy the act of sitting next to you and making their creations.
  • Set up color sorting games. Use balls with pipes taped in matching colors or boxes with various colored objects. What’s nice about sorting is that toddlers can do it together while learning recognition skills.
  • Provide them with a location in the garden where they can dig. You may not want to have your garden’s roots lifted on a daily basis, but your toddler does. Give them a section of the yard with their own tools, beginning with digging. They will eventually become one of your best assistants, but for now, let them be one with the dirt!

Ideas for Holiday Toddler Gifts (That are Pro-Parallel Play)

A seesaw is about as good as it gets when it comes to parallel play. With a seesaw, children physically align themselves but keep enough space for the autonomy a 2-year-old prefers. Link

  Busy boards are the next step after single-user abacus toys (i.e., the beaded toys found in doctor’s offices). A busy board is usually large enough for more than one person to interact with and stimulates adults to open doors, latches, and locks in real life. Link


 A multi-sided easel is an excellent way for your young painter to be inspired by their artistic peers while still having their own space to paint and experiment with color. Link

As always we encourage parents to observe their child first and then parallel-play along. It’s also beneficial to talk to toddler experts and discover ways to engage your little one.  If anyone understands toddler play it will be a preschool teacher.

Check out the Wonderschool platform to message local preschool teachers and maybe enroll your child in a toddler program near you!



Wonderschool is a network of quality in-home early childhood programs. Our mission is to ensure that every child has access to a home away from home that helps them realize their full potential. We work with experienced educators and child care providers to help them start their own child care or preschool out of their homes, whether they live in apartments, condos, or homes that they rent or own.