Age, Benefits, Examples & How To Encourage It

You see your child with other children, but instead of playing with them, they are merely watching the others play. You encourage your child to participate, but they refuse, preferring only to watch. However, you notice that they seem to be enjoying themselves watching and observing the others.

Does this scenario seem familiar to you?

If yes, you may have just witnessed an episode of onlooker play. You might worry that your child is losing interest in social interactions because they are not actively involved in the play. However, this may not be the case.

In this post, we talk about what onlooker play is, discuss some onlooker play examples, and tell you how it impacts your child’s development.

What Is Onlooker Play?

In 1932, sociologist Dr. Mildred Parten Newhall conducted a series of studies for her dissertation and developed a system for classifying the stages of a child’s play that are crucial for your child’s social development.

According to Parten, there are six stages of social play that a child goes through, starting right from birth. As they experience each stage, they develop the social skills required to play with other children (1).

Onlooker play is one of the six stages. It is when a child watches and observes other children playing but does not participate in the play. This stage is essential as the child observes and learns from their surroundings. It is generally considered a preparatory phase for children to  learn social interaction skills.

Let us now understand in brief what the six stages of social play are (2):

  • Unoccupied play:This stage takes place from birth to three months of age. The baby moves their arms and legs and finds out how each part of their body moves.
  • Independent play: This type of play begins from birth and lasts for two years. The child prefers playing alone and is not interested in playing with other children yet.
  • Onlooker play: Also called spectator play, during this stage, the child observes other children playing but does not join them.
  • Parallel play: This stage happens after the child turns two. In this stage, the child plays alongside others but does not participate in their play.
  • Associative play: This stage happens at around three years of age and continues till the child is four. In this stage, the child interacts with others during play but without the aim of achieving a common goal. You will also notice very little interaction and a lack of organization.
  • Cooperative play: This stage occurs after the child turns four. The child develops an active interest in the activities of other children and participates in them. You will also notice cooperation, organization, and teamwork.

It is important to note that although the stages are described for children in the age group of 0–5, each child grows at their own pace, and  they may not necessarily align strictly with the ages mentioned above.

Examples Of Onlooker Play Activities

Onlooker play doesn’t require any special set-up. It is an ongoing process that happens organically when your child is in the vicinity of same-aged or older children. If your child likes what they see, they will stop what they are doing and watch what others are doing. They will soak in new experiences by observing the activities of others around them.

Here are a few examples of onlooker play activities:

  • Younger children in kindergarten watching the activities of older children
  • Children who are slightly shy throwing in sudden suggestions in an activity they weren’t involved in
  • A toddler observing the use of various pieces of play equipment in a play area
  • Your child watching other children pretend play or dress-up
  • Your child watching a children’s choir or play attentively

When Does Onlooker Play Begin?

Onlooker play usually occurs around two years of age and continues for up to six months or one year. Usually, independent play and onlooker play happen simultaneously.

During this stage, it might seem that your child is missing out on social interactions and physical play. However, onlooker play is a milestone in terms of your child’s social development. Even if your child does not participate in the play, they are observing and taking mental notes. They notice not only how games are played, but also how different people interact with each other.

Why Is Onlooker Play Important?

Onlooker play is a crucial and beneficial stage in a child’s development. Even if the child seems passive and inactive when watching others play, their various brain functions are busily employed. It also helps develop their cognitive and social-emotional skills.

Cognitive skills

Watching others improves a child’s observation, perception, attention, and memory skills. They are also learning new words and more complex behaviors, such as gestures, which establish order in the play.

Social-emotional skills

Children learn by observing others. In the initial years, it is the primary caregiver, usually the mother. As they grow, their social circle increases, and they start observing other children to imbibe their characteristics. They try to imitate the mannerisms of the people they like and later try them out.

For children who are shy and reserved, onlooker play is a way to gain more experience without actually engaging with them. These children may benefit the most from onlooker play.

Positives Of Onlooker Play

There are many positives of onlooker play. It could help your child

  • Gain knowledge
  • Observe interactions among other children
  • Develop self-confidence
  • Learn to cooperate with other children
  • Develop their cognitive and social skills
  • Develop their memory and deductive skills

How To Encourage Your  Child During Onlooker Play?

Parents always want their children to achieve the right milestones successfully. When you see your child watching others and not engaging with them, you might feel uneasy and emotional. But you have to remember that onlooker play is a crucial developmental stage, and your baby will soon transition to the next stage.

There are a few things that you can do to make the transition of your child to the next stage easy and smooth:

  • Offer support to your child: When at the play area, switch off your phone and keenly observe what the child is doing. In some cases, if you participate in an activity or a game, it is more likely that your child will participate in it too.
  • Encourage role play:Assemble a collection of old towels, toys, etc., in a place where your toddler can get their hands on whenever they want. Role play can help improve the imaginative and cognitive skills of your
  • Arrange playdates: Playing with children of a similar age could be a great learning experience for your They can also see adults (parents or babysitters) interacting with each other and learn social skills.
  • Offer open-ended toys: Instead of giving them specific toys, give them open-ended toys, such as empty cartons or wooden blocks to play with. These toys can help them develop their imaginative and deductive skills, encourage freethinking, and improve their motor skills.

When Does Onlooker Play End?

When your child reaches 3–3 ½ years, they will move on to the next stage of play, that is, parallel play. In the parallel play stage, you will notice your child playing with other children. They might still not actively engage in play, but they will prefer playing alongside other children. They might probably share their toys, but they will play independently and won’t play to achieve a common goal.

When Should You Worry About Your Child’s Development?

If you feel your child hasn’t reached the onlooker play stage despite having reached an adequate age, there is no need to panic. They might be engaged in solitary play and may not notice what is happening around them. Some children can be quite reserved at a young age and slow in achieving their developmental milestones. These children might take some time to move on to the onlooker play stage (3).

If you have any concerns about your child’s development, do not hesitate to contact your pediatrician.

What Can You Expect Next?

As your child’s cognitive and social-emotional skills develop, they will slowly transition into parallel play and then move on to associative play. Each stage comes with its own set of knowledge and learning, so be prepared to handle your child’s independence.

Every child has to achieve several developmental milestones while growing up. These milestones are important for your child’s mental, physical, social, and emotional development.

Onlooker play is a crucial stage of your child’s development. It lays the foundation for teaching your child the dynamics of social interaction and problem-solving. As your child completes this stage, they will gain the confidence to meet other people and interact appropriately with them. Encourage your child to develop social skills and help them become confident and self-assured as they grow up.


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