Parallel Play

June 28, 2009

Parallel play

Parallel play

Parallel play is when two children are playing the same play frame, but not collaborating with one another or influencing one another’s play directly.

Rather than through negotiation, the two children’s play frames are synchronized and coordinated by imitation. You often see one child repeating the same action that another child does. (Classic Vygotsky: the play frame is in their ZPD and they are learning how to act in it from one another).

This poses problems for kids with disabilities: #1: their motor and linguistic capacity to imitate.

Can our kid actually perform the physical actions of driving the car up the ramp or putting a dress on Barbie? This is a problem (but is a little out of my universe as an SLP. I’ll let the OT and Rec Therapists work on this one).

Can a child using AAC imitate something that another child says that sounds interesting?


No need for me to say, “maybe” or “perhaps” or any other academic equivocation (I’m writing this very thing in a paper for publication and the amount of waffling I’ve needed to do has driven me to blogging it instead, where statements of certainty can be expressed safely).

The tech just isn’t out there for real-time programming of AAC systems. But this is where that concept I was talking about earlier comes in— The other child, in the act of playing, needs to be programming the AAC system. Why? Because this is how kids without AAC get their vocabularies programmed!

The current best system (that is if a child who is developmentally at the parallel play age had an AAC system, which is in itself rare) would be for the SLP or teacher to be frantically scribbling notes of what the typical kid was doing and saying in a notebook. After the play session, this adult would take the AAC system away from the child and program all of these things in the computer. Then, in the next therapy session, try to teach all of this vocabulary completely removed from the context in which any of it made any sense at all.

And that’s optimistic. realistically, the SLP or teacher or parent sits down and brainstorms a bunch of vocabulary that they think is likely to be useful in the play frame in isolation of anything real and then shake their head at how the child doesn’t use the AAC device.

Gee, I wonder why kids with AAC have such a hard time becoming competent communicators. They must have cognitive problems.

Or it could be that the device is completely f-ing useless for the task at hand.

And I’m not even done

Problem #2

Parallel play is imitative. Children seek out others in a play frame and join them when it strikes them as fun and interesting. How often is our kid with the disability doing the most interesting thing in the room?

While our kid with the disability could be learning a lot from another kid maintaining a solitary play frame, what is our kid doing that reciprocates that relationship?

This is the real tragedy, because it isn’t inevitable at all.

dolls_wheelchair_1How is it that we’ve found ourselves in a Bizarro-universe in which a kid who carries around a computer everywhere isn’t interesting. Some of our kids actually use wheels to get around. Kids love wheels! Why are we not leveraging their assistive technology to make them more interesting and push kids without disabilities into a Zone of Proximal Development?

Is it because assistive technology is something to be ashamed of?

Like many of my blog posts, I end with the question that prompted me to write the post in the first place:

When was the last time you saw a toy wheelchair for kids without disabilities to pretend in?


3 Responses to “Parallel Play”

  1. Samuel Says:

    This Stuff rocks Adam!

  2. I.N. Says:

    To become an emotionally healthy person, the child has to pass all three stages, that correspond to the passing from parallel play to group play, from independence to wanting to be part of a group.

    • G.Fraggle Says:

      The stages in the model on your site (Dependence, Independence, Interdependence) is a good one, but it’s not exactly how I see it. I would argue that as far as play is concerned, even a child at 4 months old is not “entirely dependent” on the parent as is stated in Childwiki. Growth certainly involves going through those stages, but one doesn’t pass through them just once—we repeat that process over and over throughout the lifespan—even into adulthood—for every skill we have.

      This is classic Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky) or instructional scaffolding (Bruner) here.

      Parallel play is a type of play that occurs at a stage where children are learning to coordinate their behavior with a group, but they don’t have the language or pragmatic skills to do so explicitly. There is implicit communication between the children, though. It stops being parallel the moment both children are able to explicitly talk about what they are doing to one another.

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