Parallel Play

Is your child playing next to kids rather than with kids?

Is your child:

  • Preferring to be near other children but failing to engage with them?
  • Appearing shy and uncertain how to join play?
  • Seeming happy to play alone?
  • Appearing to be ‘in his own world?’
  • Engaging well in chase or wrestling but not understanding pretend play?
  • Acting bossy or controlling always needing to have his own way?


Some children struggle to play with other kids. What’s the matter? Your child may be having difficulty with companionship. From approximately ages two to three, children tend to move from parallel play, that is, playing beside but not engaging with other children, to cooperative play, which establishes companionship, i.e., friendship.

So, playing side by side with little social interaction is fine for your toddler, but by age 4 or 5, we would begin to be concerned that cooperative play is not emerging. Some children in later preschool years roam the playground alone, searching for bugs and dirt. They seem to be in their own world, and they do not run with the pack or engage with peers.

Other children play close by but don’t pay much attention to the other children and do not try to play with them. When guided to join the group, this child might join and follow quietly, or he might steal the ball and run away with the game not knowing that he is not playing “with” the kids. As other children start to appear frustrated, our game disruptor might be totally oblivious to the situation.


Clinically, social engagement from the preschool years on should become more sophisticated. Children should move from parallel play, think the 18-month-old sitting beside another child both stacking blocks, to cooperative play, think the 5-year-old building a Lego tower with his friends [5]. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders often lack social reciprocity. Cooperative and pretend play are evaluated through tasks on the ADOS-2 and through questions in interviews and on rating scales completed by parents. One way to consider these concepts is to think, “Does my child play with other kids or just chill on the sidelines?”

At a birthday party, can your child become overwhelmed? Perhaps he or she hits other children when they take the toys your child wants. Your child may cover his or her ears or stay by your side like glue. Children with Autism tend to have challenges with flexible, cooperative play.

Some children are very creative when it comes to an area of interest, like recreating trench warfare from WWI. When given a few action figures, the same child may note inaccuracies like “This guy doesn’t even have eyes.” or “Dinosaurs are extinct. They don’t have a pet dinosaur.” Other times, your child’s play may be very bossy. He may like younger kids who will follow orders or much older kids who are very flexible and understand that a younger child may be less mature and may need to get his way.


Plan social activities for your child around his or her interests. Join a Lego or Robotics club; pursue the swim team or horseback riding. Find ways to have your child engage socially without leading to failure. When activities are structured and turn-taking, back-and-forth interaction can be modeled, and children can improve their social skills.

You may choose to avoid soccer teams or baseball teams, which are large activities that require a lot of cooperation. Find something with an individual component but also social opportunities. Social groups in your community or at your child’s school may be a way for him or her to learn social skills and have these skills modeled for him or her. Provide breaks and down time, but give your child social learning experiences.

There are a variety of great resources for social skills to help children learn about the importance of polite greetings, social smiles, active listening and conversation skills [9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14].


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Pragmatic language: children who struggle with parallel play may also struggle to communicate with peers
  • Attention (Focusing): children who struggle with parallel play may be having difficulty paying attention to social cues and listening to others
  • Restricted Patterns of Behavior or Interests (Repetitive Behavior, Perseverating, Rigidity, Rigid Behavior): children who struggle with parallel play may also struggle with restricted or repetitive behaviors
  • Expressive language: children who struggle with parallel play may also have trouble expressing their thoughts and ideas
  • Receptive language: children who struggle with parallel play may also have trouble with comprehending spoken language


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • AD/HD: includes deficits in attention that can also cause social challenges. You may be less likely to see parallel play and more likely to see impulsivity, hyperactivity, and not reading other children’s cues of “this is too much.” AD/HD is characterized by challenges with sustained attention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: includes deficits in social communication and restricted interests or behaviors. In children, social interaction is defined by cooperative play, which is more advanced than the parallel play exhibited by younger children.
  • Expressive Language Disorder or Receptive Language Disorder: includes deficits in language that can make it hard for a child to connect. He or she may be frustrated and unable to voice wants or needs. Children with ASD sometimes have language impairments, so language is an important area to have assessed.
  • Intellectual Disability: includes deficits in cognitive ability (low IQ scores) that can lead to slow development and a delay in reaching social milestones. Global delays, not just in the area of social interaction, can be present.


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • CLEAR Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child, or to consult ‘live’ with a psychologist
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to consider an evaluation for diagnostic clarification
  • Developmental Pediatrician: to guide in helping medically relevant issues for children with developmental delays and can provide referrals or advice regarding behavioral and medical treatment
  • Geneticist/Metabolic Specialist/Neurologist: to provide evaluations. Depending on the needs of your child, a genetic panel, sleep study, or metabolic intervention might be recommended by the psychologist or developmental pediatrician.
  • Psychotherapist: to provide CBT interventions that have been shown to be effective in helping children with ASD make gains in recognizing and understanding emotions, improve perspective taking and social skills, and manage co-occurring depression and anxiety
  • ABA Therapist: to teach pro-social behavior. Applied Behavior Analysis uses principles of reinforcement to increase desired behaviors like communication and language and to decrease undesired behaviors like hitting/tantrums. For older children, ABA may be a good way to address adaptive skills weaknesses, such as challenges with chores, self-care, or navigating the community
  • Speech and Language Pathologist: to treat language problems and develop the skills needed for effective social communication. An SLP is an important member of your treatment team if your child has language delays. Treatment works best if all team members can communicate with one another to make sure your child is getting comprehensive services

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:

  • DAS-II Preschool: this test of early cognitive abilities can provide an idea of how a child is developing in language and verbal comprehension, nonverbal reasoning, and spatial processing. Cognitive abilities are not stable until around age seven, but this measure can give an idea of what domains would benefit from intervention and what is developing typically. This measure starts at age two and a half
  • CELF-Preschool or School Aged: this test of language skills in young children helps guide treatment for language delays. Vocabulary, Language Comprehension, and Expressive and Receptive Language are assessed with this test
  • WISC-V: this test of intelligence provides information on abilities in verbal comprehension, fluid reasoning, visual spatial, working memory, and processing speed. Understanding a child’s cognitive profile can help us understand strengths and weaknesses that may be associated with ASD. The WISC-V can also help guide what other measures need to be administered to get a better picture of overall functioning. This test may be very broad, including language, motor, attention, memory, executive functioning, sensory processing, emotions, behavior, and more
  • ADOS-2 Module 2 or 3: this test of social communication and restricted, repetitive behavior, is used to rule in or out the presence of an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Getting this diagnosis early opens doors for funding via insurance or Medicaid waivers. The ADOS-2 gives information that can guide the formation of treatment goals


[1] Kroncke, Anna, Willard, Marcy & Huckabee, Helena (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

[2] Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.

[3] UCSB PEERS Clinic

[4] Ozonoff, Sally & Dawson, Geraldine & McPartland, James C. (2014). A parent’s guide to high functioning autism spectrum disorder: How to meet the challenges and help your child thrive.



[5] Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support.


[6] Barton, Erin. Educating Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

[7] Baker, Jed. (2001). The social skills picture book: Teaching play, emotion, and communication to children with autism.


[8] Baker, Jed. (2006) Social skills picture book for high school and beyond.


[9] Gray, Carol & Attwood, Tony (2010). The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and their Peers.


[10] Madrigal, Stephanie & Winner, Michelle G. (2008). Superflex. A superhero social thinking curriculum.


[11] McKinnon, Kelly & Krempa, Janis L. (2002). Social Skills Solutions: A Hands-On Manual for Teaching Social Skills to Children with Autism.


[12] Mendler, Allen (2013). Teaching your students how to have a conversation.


Image Credit:
Name: Cute european toddlers in kindergarten.
Image ID: 68315230 (Shutterstock)
By: Kaesler Media
Previously licensed on: November 3, 2016
Stylized by Katie Harwood, exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology

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