Your child is standing on the sidelines, watching the other kids play. Seems like they’re just looking on, right?

Wrong. Onlooker play is an important developmental stage. It’s not just child’s play — it’s serious business.

Sociologist Mildred Parten divided play into six stages. At each of these stages, your child develops cognitive and social skills that form the foundation for future successful interaction with others. And it happens even when they’re just watching.

Jean Piaget defined the different stages of play primarily by the cognitive developmental stages that a child reaches. Parten saw things a little differently. She emphasized that learning to play is very much about learning how to relate to others.

Here’s a quick look at Parten’s six stages of play:

  • Unoccupied play. Your child isn’t playing yet — just watching or standing in one spot and sometimes making random movements.
  • Solitary play. Your child is fully focused on their own activity and unaware of other children around them.
  • Onlooker play. Your child watches and even comments on other kids playing but doesn’t join in.
  • Parallel play. At this bridging stage, children play alongside each other, but remain in their separate worlds.
  • Associative play. Children interact with each other, but the activities aren’t coordinated.
  • Cooperative play. Around kindergarten age, playtime becomes well-organized and the children have assigned roles.

Don’t hold a stopwatch because we aren’t all programmed to run on the same timetable. But as a rule of thumb, you can expect onlooker play to begin when your toddler reaches between 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 years of age.

If your heart breaks because you see your child standing on the edge, watching quietly as the other kids play, don’t reach for your tissues. Celebrate — your toddler has reached another milestone. Remember those previous play dates when your child wasn’t even aware that there were other kids in the room.

Onlooker play is a big part of a child’s development. While your child may seem passive when they’re just watching, they’re actually pretty busy working on cognitive and social-emotional skills.

Cognitive skills

Observation sharpens perception, attention, memory, and thinking. By noticing how gestures and words are used, kids are laying the groundwork for the more complex symbols (writing and math) that they will learn in school.

Social-emotional skills

In his famous Bobo doll experiments, Albert Bandura, hailed as the father of the cognitive theory, showed that kids learn how to behave from observing others. It’s a one-way street: Watch, assimilate, and then imitate.

Need more convincing? Psychologist Lev Vygotsky says that observation “refines the natural state of behavior of the child and alters completely anew the whole course of his development.” Observation teaches some important lessons including:

  • The rules of engagement.Observation teaches kids how to cooperate with other kids, how to listen to the rules, and how to better rein in their own impulses. They realize that sticking to the structure of play is worth it — they get more pleasure from the game than from satisfying an immediate impulse.
  • Different strokes for different folks. Some children are naturally more reserved. Researchers call these kids slow-to-warm-up. They gain the most from onlooker play. As they watch other kids at play, they learn. Armed with this knowledge, they gain the self-confidence needed to move on to the next stage of play.

Your toddler loves watching other children at play. But at this early stage, they’re more interested in watching quietly from the sidelines than in directly participating. Here’s what you’ll notice at the onlooker stage:

  • Your toddler sits or stands near other children who are playing, but doesn’t get involved.
  • They may stay within earshot so that they can keep tabs on what’s going on.
  • They may talk to other kids, ask questions, and give suggestions, but no more.
  • In Montessori classrooms, kids typically range from 2 1/2 to 6 years of age. It’s common to see the younger children watching the older children play from a safe distance.
  • Remember that slower-to-warm-up child? This child feels safe watching from a distance but may throw in a suggestion when they get a chance.
  • Sports’ spectators are also engaged in onlooker play — some good things never come to an end!

We all want to help our kids reach important milestones. And, to be totally honest, it hurts when you see your kid on the sidelines — even when you know that this developmental stage will soon pass. So, what can you do to nudge the onlookers onto the next stage? Here are some great ideas:

  • Be on hand when your child plays to offer support and care. Researchers recommend switching off your phone when you’re with your child. When you take part in the game, onlookers are more likely to take part as well.
  • Give your toddler the opportunity to role play. Build a collection of hats, scarves, purses, shoes, blankets, dishes, broken phones, keyboards, and anything else you’re tempted to toss out. Store the props on low shelves and in open tubs so that your child can pick and choose easily. When you play with your toddler, or invite a friend for a play date, the props give them a starting point for play.
  • You can grease the wheels of successful play with open-ended questions like, “Is it time to feed the baby?” or “How can you build the farm?”
  • Play dates can stretch your nerves, because playing with others is a learning curve. Expect squabbles and, when they occur, referee calmly — the kids are doing what kids do.
  • Have you recently installed an air conditioner or a bought a new appliance? Keep the box they come in and make a house. Go ahead and crawl inside, and your toddler will likely do the same.

When your toddler reaches 3 1/2 to 4 years of age, they’ll probably move on to the next stage of developmental play — parallel play. At this stage, you’ll see your child actually playing next to other kids, but not yet playing together. The kids will probably share their resources, but they won’t have a common goal.

You may notice that your child and their friend are playing with blocks, but they’ll each build their own tower. Stay on hand in case they start to squabble over the blocks! The kids might have a blast with your costume box, but they likely won’t assign roles.

What happens when you notice that your child hasn’t moved on to the onlooker play stage? Maybe they’re still fully engaged in the solitary play stage and don’t show any interest in what the other kids around them are doing.

Breathe easy… it happens. The guidelines for the age ranges of the play stages are simply guidelines. Up to 15 percent of kids are slower to warm up. These kids may be shy or super-cautious.

And a heads up: Sometimes even though a child has mastered parallel or associative play, they may still slip back to the onlooker stage. That’s perfectly normal. Don’t you also have days when you’re perfectly happy to sit back and watch the world pass by?

That said, if you have any concerns about your child’s development, reach out to your pediatrician.

Your child is growing up. As their cognitive, communication, and social-emotional skills come together, you’ll notice that the onlooker play has morphed into parallel and then associative play. Watch out, because soon they’ll be asking for the car keys!