Onlooker Play

Onlooker Play

Onlooker play, also known as spectator play, is one of the earliest stages of play when children watch others play, but do not join in. In onlooker play, as children sit or stand near other children who are playing, their motivation is to observe their play safely from a distance with no intention to be an active part of the play. They may engage in conversation with the players, asking questions and giving suggestions, but without actually joining in with the activity.1

In 1932, sociologist Mildred Parten, at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, developed a system for classifying participation in play by children that has been widely accepted. Her six stages were unoccupied play, solitary play, onlooker play, parallel play, associative play, and cooperative play. Her theory was that as children grew older with improved communication skills and more opportunities for interaction with other children, their solitary play would become more social.2

Children learn about their world and how to interact with others through play. Initially, babies spend much of their time in solitary play exploring all aspects of their environment. They manipulate objects and engage in symbolic play becoming familiar with objects, actions, and ideas. As they become toddlers, their mobility opens them up to more social exposure.3

Learning to play alone gives children the time to think and explore how their world operates. It gives them the freedom to use their imaginations. They are able to make their own rules for play and can become fully engaged in an activity that interests them.4

Solitary play and onlooker play often run concurrently with onlooker play often beginning around the age of two. Watching other children play gives children time to mentally assimilate what they see and hear, organizing and integrating information for future use. This gives them the opportunity to watch and learn before actually engaging in play with others.5 Onlooker play helps children acquire self-knowledge and helps them build confidence. Through observation they learn how to cooperate with other children and can practice interacting from a safe distance. This is an important stage in children’s play that readies them to be able to move into social play. Onlooker play is followed by parallel play, where children play next to others, but not with them.6

  • 1. “Stage 3: Onlooker.” Seriously!! Kids!! < > 19 Oct. 2016.
  • 2. Tomlin, Carolyn R. “Play: A Historical Review.” EarlychildhoodNEWS. < > 9 June 2016.
  • 3. “Parallel Play in an 18 Months Old.” World Of Moms. < > 9 June 2016.
  • 4. “Playing alone.” National Toy Council. British Toys & Hobby Association. < > 17 Oct. 2016.
  • 5. Anderson, Sarah Jane. “Children Who Just Watch.” National Association for the Education of Young Children. < > 19 Oct. 2016.
  • 6. Op. cit., "Stage 3: Onlooker."