collaboration | Sep 08, 2022

What Is Onlooker Play? Benefits, Examples & More

By Blue Squirrel Team

What Is Onlooker Play? Benefits, Examples & More

As parents, we always wonder if we’re doing the right thing. We want our kids to grow into the best versions of themselves, and without a crystal ball to show us the future, we may sometimes worry unnecessarily

Well, we are here to tell you that you’re doing just fine! And here at Blue Squirrel, we also want to give you the lowdown on the stages of play that your child may go through. Today, we’re zooming in on the onlooker stage of play. 

Just like sleep regressions and tantrums, onlooker play is an integral part of your kiddo’s growth and development. Onlooker play isn’t always what adults picture when we imagine our children having fun, but this stage is critical, and we’re here to tell you why.

Today, we are going to define onlooker play, tell you why it’s essential, give you a few examples, guide you on how to encourage it, and finally supply you with the tools you might need.   


What Is Onlooker Play?


What is Onlooker Play I Blue Squirrel Outdoor Playsets 

Did you know that there are six specific stages of play that are crucial to a child’s development? While today we are going to specifically cover onlooker play, it’s important to understand and be able to identify all the stages, so you know what to expect as well as when you’ve reached something new. 


Mildred Parten


Mildred Parten was a sociologist that defined the six stages of play. Sociologists still recognize these stages, which are vital in a child’s growth and development. These stages are known as social play. 

Social play, through these six stages, is defined as the patterned growth of social understanding. Through these stages, kids learn to relate and interact socially with each other and thus start to lay the building blocks for their adult futures.


The Stages of Play


Parten defined the stages of play as this:


  • Unoccupied play: This is where children aren't yet enjoying play, just mainly watching and standing still.
  • Solitary play: In this stage, children focus solely on their own activities and games and aren’t yet noticing other kids in the area. 
  • Onlooker play: Around this point, your child is starting to notice other children playing but is watching and commenting on the play rather than joining in. 
  • Parallel play: This stage has children playing alongside each other, but without joining their individual games. 
  • Associative play: Children are now beginning to join games and activities but without a lot of cohesion. 
  • Cooperative play: The final stage is when playtime becomes inclusive, and games are sensible and coordinated. 

    Parten believed that these stages of play are defined as such due to a child’s ability to observe and learn from peers. She drove home the idea that we learn and grow based on relatable experiences with each other. 


    When Does Onlooker Play Start?


    Onlooker play will happen around two and a half to three and a half years of age. At this point, kids are aware enough of their surroundings and just beginning to see that there are rules to follow on the playground. 

    Generally, you can expect the most active play stages to develop by the time your kiddo reaches kindergarten. However, as all families know, kids aren’t on a perfect clock or system. This means we can have generalized times when these stages begin/end, but they are just generalizations.


    Why Is Onlooker Play Important?


    Onlooker play is a vital stage in play and social development. Two main areas of growth benefit from this stage of play. Specifically, onlooker play can help children grow cognitively as well as develop better social-emotional skills. 




    During the onlooker stage of play, kids observe and begin to understand the stepping stones in which children play together. This means they expand their memory, attention span, and critical thinking. They’re also starting to recognize each other better, all of these growth opportunities are vital to cognitive development. 


    Social-Emotional Development


    Onlooker play also expands on a child’s social-emotional development. This type of development helps kids react to the emotions of others and understand the rules in which we play and socialize. 


    These skills are essential for children and adults; your child can gain helpful skills from the onlooker stage. For children that are shyer than others, the onlook stage helps them to be more comfortable on the playground and gives them the confidence they need. 

    Your little ones will also be able to gain skills on how to interact with one another, which will help them create friendships and make relationships now and in the future.  


    Examples of Onlooker Play


    Even though children can hold fascinating conversations, we can’t simply ask them what stage of play they are in, unfortunately. 

    So, here are a few behaviors and signs that your child may be in the onlooker stage:




    During the onlooker stage, your little one is making advancements in their memory and understanding of social situations. You’ll notice three specific behaviors that will clue you into the onlooker stage. 

    First, your child will start to not only look at the play going on around them but also edge closer to it. They will want to be in on the action but not directly participate. This goes into the second behavior, which gets them closer enough to hear the play and follow along while staying neutral to the game.

    Lastly, you may notice them start to ask questions and make comments to the children involved, and yet, they’ll still stay on the sidelines. 




    You can effectively confirm that your child is in the onlooker stage when you see them start to observe and also interact with these observations. They aren’t playing but actively seeking out older groups of children and offering them advice for their games. 

    All of this occurs while still keeping a little distance between themselves and the kids at play. 


    How To Encourage Onlooker Play


    You might want to see your kiddos actively playing and enjoying the company of other children, but we need to encourage the onlooker stage and let it flourish. 
    Keep in mind that the onlooker stage stays with us through adulthood (most prominently seen in those who identify as sports enthusiasts!).


    Be Supportive


    If they want to tell you about games they’ve observed, listen intently. This helps them understand that it’s okay to watch and that you also find it fascinating. This stage leads to stages further down the line where they finally find themselves participating, so keep that in mind when listening to their day. 


    Be Present


    When you’re at the park on weekends, watch games and observe activities with them. You can make suggestions to your little one or tell them about different interactions you noticed. 

    Even though your child is on the sidelines, be engaged as if they are participating. 


    Provide Opportunities


    Take them to the park more often, or make observations when you’re at public places like the mall or post office. It may not be a conventional place to watch kids play together, but there are still opportunities for our kids to see interactions between people that will be new. 

    It is also helpful at home to build a play area and fill it with items that will get their imagination turning. You might make an inventor’s table and give them a bunch of paper, cardboard, fun markers, and safety scissors so they can build and create items. 

    You could also add odds and ends, like hats, cups, puzzles — really anything that will have replaying games they’ve seen. This can help them fill in where these toys and items fit into their playground antics. 


    Ask Questions


    Not only can we make observations, but we can also ask questions. Have them question what they’re seeing, interpret the games being played, and what they would do if they were to join in on the game. 

    Even if they don’t go from expressing how they would play straight into a game with those kids, these questions will give them ways to prepare. For children that are shy and tentative to join in, seeing play happen and creating resolutions to problems they haven’t necessarily had yet can help them gain the confidence they need for the future. 


    Book Playdates


    You can book playdates for your kid to provide them with more opportunities to watch other kids play. If you’re worried about the stress your kiddo might feel at the one-on-one playtime, then find a parenting group to join where moms and dads get together at fun places around town. 

    This will allow your child to join in when they’re ready, but give them a few kiddos to watch play before they’re ready. 


    When Is the Onlooker Play Stage Over?


    Your child should be completing the onlooker stage of play by the time they reach four years old. At this point, they would have had a substantial amount of time to observe other children and find ways to resolve conflicts or decide on ways they would do things separate from what they saw other children doing. 

    While you may be ready for them to begin creating games and joining in on the fun, it isn’t quite time for that yet. The next stage they’ll enter is parallel play, and this means they will begin to play, but this will take place alongside children as opposed to directly with them. 


    When To Worry… and When To Relax


    As parents, we can often worry about everything our children do, or rather anytime they could potentially get hurt doing something. So, with the stages of play, if we follow the age guidelines too closely, we may find ourselves panicking with every birthday. 

    Remember that these age ranges are guidelines, not a necessary rule. In fact, it can be quite common for children to revert back to stages even after moving on from them. So, it may be easier said than done, but don’t worry too much. If your child takes a little longer to warm up to stages, refer to your physician for any developmental delays they might see or you might be concerned about. 

    But if they see nothing that strikes them as out of the ordinary, allow your child to blossom into group play when they are ready. 


    Don’t Blink 


    We mean it, don’t blink. It is wonderful to watch our kids grow and observe them expand their social circles. These are the memories we treasure of the early days — of wild imaginations, bright sunny days, and long evenings spent playing outside. 

    Parten’s 6 Social Stages of Play and Why They Are Important | ParentingForBrain
    What is Social-Emotional Development? | Early Childhood Development
    5 Ways Toddlers Benefit from Parallel Play | Healthline
    The power of play – Part 1: Stages of play - Early Childhood Development | Michigan State University

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