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Children's Health

At what age is parallel play appropriate?



My son, age 3 years, 7 months is an only child. One parent has stayed at home with him since birth. He is just finishing up his second month of preschool, where he goes three mornings a week.

His teacher said he still engages in parallel play and she was concerned that he needs to develop more interactive skills. I somehow thought that parallel play was still somewhat normal at this age? Should I be really concerned? He gets very excited to be around other kids, is not shy, and will walk up to a strange child at the park and start playing. Thanks for your help.


I think you and the teacher are both right from your own different perspectives. The teacher is correct that parallel play is far less likely at this age than is cooperative play with others. However, each child comes to cooperative play from a different set of experiences.

Your son is new to out-of-home care and preschool. He is likely still adjusting to being at preschool, which can be stressful for a child regardless of how wonderful the preschool is, especially for a child without prior out-of-home experience or a lot of time playing with other children. Your son can be relying on a less sophisticated style of play as he adjusts to preschool. Once he is more comfortable in the new environment, his play will likely become more cooperative in nature with other children.

It is reassuring that when he is with you, he is able to easily reach out to other children for companionship in play. It would be more concerning if he was also reticent in situations with familiar, supportive adults nearby.

Other behaviors to consider in terms of fleshing out the need for genuine concern or not include: whether or not his speech is understandable at least 75% of the time by others who do not know him well, whether he uses words to make requests, shares toys and books with you or other familiar adults, makes good eye contact with others he knows, and has a generally happy disposition. If you can say "yes, he does this" to each of these behaviors, then the chance of any serious developmental problem is very small. If you say "no" to any of these options, I would recommend that you discuss your and the teacher's concerns with his doctor and ask if there is a need for evaluation by a specialist in child development and behavior.

If all is well in the behaviors above, I recommend inviting some of his favorite classmates over to play on weekends or holidays. This will help build his friendship network more quickly. You might also consider daily attendance to aid adaptation - but that is really up to you in terms of what you think is best given your son's temperament and your knowledge of him as a person.

I hope this is helpful.

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Response by:

Mary M Gottesman, PhD, RN, CPNP, FAAN Mary M Gottesman, PhD, RN, CPNP, FAAN
Professor of Clinical Nursing
College of Nursing
The Ohio State University