Play Time: Parallel to Interactive Play
~By Michelle Siegman, MSW, LCSW
Play is a child’s birthright. Whether it’s hide-and-seek, house, pirates or princesses, play makes childhood the wondrous time that it is. It’s also some serious developmental business, critical to a youngster’s lifelong ability to forge meaningful relationships.
Often when I ask parents if their child tends to play alone or with others, the answer tends to be “with others.” Yet when I observe their children at school, I notice that they are playing next to friends but not actually with them. This is called parallel play.
If you see your son sitting next to another child while playing with building blocks but the two of them are constructing separate buildings and barely talking with each other, they are engaging in parallel play. Likewise, if your daughter sits in front of the television playing video games with her friend, in most cases she is also playing parallel to her friend rather than interacting with her.
During the preschool years, parallel play often dominates the genuine interactive kind. And this is perfectly normal. As kids reach kindergarten and beyond, though, it’s time for more interactive play to begin. In interactive play, you’ll watch in wonder as your child learns how to initiate and maintain friendships.
As we all know, the key to any real friendship is the ability to read social cues like facial expressions and demonstrate empathy accordingly. For most children, mirroring other people’s expressions arises on its own. For others, this is a skill that must be taught and rehearsed.
To foster these skills in your child, I encourage you to begin with eye contact. Peeling your child’s eyes away from the Wii or iPad may not be easy, but getting him to make eye contact with you during conversations is critical. It’s something you can model, meaning more authentic interaction for both of you.
I also recommend quality one-on-one time with your child. Next time you speak to your son, sit down on your haunches and make eye contact on his level. When your daughter hops into your car after school, make sure you’re not on the phone and proceed to ask specific questions about her day. Instead of watching your kids build their LEGO monument from the couch, get down on the floor and complete the mini-skyscraper together. This doesn’t mean that video games are completely off limits. They just can’t replace the joys of genuine human interaction.
If your preschool-age son or daughter still prefers parallel to interactive play, there is no need to panic. Keep on eye on him or her and you should notice a shift in play and behavior in kindergarten or first grade. If interactive play does not begin to emerge, seek the advice of the teacher or school social worker. There may be a need for early intervention. In most cases, however, you’ll see that your child and his friends are taking play to the next level and truly interacting. Enjoy every moment of it!
Michelle Siegman, MSW, LCSW
Michelle is a Chicago-based Licensed Clinical Therapist with expertise in the areas of building social skills, bullying prevention, and implementing behavioral plans. Her eight years in the school system have provided her with an inside track and unique perspective of the academic environment. You can contact Michelle directly at (312) 259-5844.
The pic comes from Best Education Possible.