Parallel play

by Paul Maharg on 17/09/2012

I first came across the idea of parallel play way back in 1980/81 when I was doing a postgrad Dip in Education at Glasgow U. It was one of those many fascinating ideas that seemed to say so much to me about the possibilities of play in education. As far as I remember the idea was developed by Mildred Parten, a US child psychologist in the 1930s as a term to describe a subset of social and learning behaviours of pre-school children (ie pre-5 yr olds). Around a certain age, children develop a sense of others playing around them, while continuing with their own play. So they’ll play with the plasticine, but begin to observe others around them doing similar things, and maybe start to incorporate some of that in their own play. According to Parten this is the first of at least three stages, the other two being simple play, then more sophisticated co-operative play, where there’s more of a sense of purpose and shared goals about the play. This isn’t a hierarchy from primitive to sophisticated though – pre-school children move between the three stages in their play. Quite why they do so, I can’t remember – perhaps Parten had some idea of a meta-purpose that would switch between the modes of play, maybe not.

At any rate, after the course and when I began to teach I began to observe the same differences in my adult education classes. These generic forms of play were really continuous throughout adult learning, but what interested me was why adults switched, and under what conditions. Then in the nineties when I was constructing early learning applications in Guide Hypertext, and using the web, I became convinced that Parten’s ideas applied to online learning patterns even more than they did in classrooms. Going beyond her observational research (carried out in intense, short bursts of observation lasting a minute) it seemed to me that making adults aware of the types of learning they engaged in and discussing it with them might help them to understand what was going on when they learned.

I had other models for this, in the middle nineties. Bandura’s classic research on ‘observational learning‘, for instance, was taken up by Terry Mayes and others — see here, eg. Their development of the concept of vicarious learning was an absorbing version of parallel play, and useful at a time when many online learning gurus were pumping interactivity as the key to online learning. But what about reflective learning (hot reflection, in Schon’s term, that takes place as a conversation in a seminar actually takes place), what about the deliberate choice to inhabit a space, not an active role, and to be engaged while disengaged? That’s the secret of parallel play, where the child actually does something quite sophisticated: she continues to play, but also observes and can modify her own play as a result of observation. Mayes and his group also emphasised (unlike Parten, I think) the role that personal relationship plays in learning through observation in learning communities.

Distinguishing between Parten’s three forms of peer sociability seemed to me to be essential if educators were to think of how students might learn socially at university. In terms of pedagogical approaches, for example, simulation could easily accommodate all three, but not all at once; and there’s a good case for asking designers of sims what it is they actually want students to do in terms of Parten’s three forms of peer sociability whenever students interact in a sim. When, for instance, might they want to interact with each other, or simply engage in the sim, or when might they want to simply act, while observing others do versions of what they are doing, and learning from it?

The more I think about Parten’s sociability research, the more I find it applies to social situations quite different from the kindergarten. On one interpretation, Parten’s work is really a study in how we engage in play and form our relations with reality – how we engage in the social construction of that reality. For example, how do artists learn their craft, and what part does sociability play in that? How does that affect how they represent a landscape, for instance. Look at how Samuel Palmer might draw his beloved Shoreham, contrast that with Constable’s treatment of a landscape, or compare it with the loving, detailed density of another much less known artist, Robin Tanner, drawing his passionate versions of a Wiltshire that was no more really there than Shoreham was in Palmer’s dreamy drawings. In a sense the artistic engagement with reality beyond pigment, ink and paper lay on a spectrum of engagement in which they chose parallel play in some of their art, and in other ways they would engage closely with a process of making and representing the detail of their vision.

In writing the process is just as complex, hidden, a tension of purpose, material, vision, the immediate tactics, the writer’s own nature. Writing in a letter to Stevenson about RLS’s novel Catriona, for instance, Henry James noted: ‘The one thing I miss in the book is the note of visibility — it subjects my visual sense, my seeingimagination, to an almost painful underfeeding … when you, e.g., transport your characters, toward the end, in a line or two from Leyden to Dunkirk without the glint of a hint of all the ambient picture of the eighteenth-century road’.[1] Stevenson was well aware of the tendency of fictive reconstruction to become hypnotically self-referential: ‘How to get over, how to escape from, the besotting particularityof fiction. “Roland approached the house; it had green doors and window blinds; and there was a scraper on the upper step.” To hell with Roland and the scraper!’[2] It is interesting that Stevenson has just finished recounting in this letter to James how he turns for relief from fiction to Fountainhall’s Decisions, a collection of eighteenth century case reports. He comments: ‘There’s literature, if you like! It feeds; it falls about you genuine like rain’ (ibid, 297). Stevenson was hugely respectful of James, observed him, learned from him; and he learned from legal literature too, how to control and distance his narrative when he needed – two forms of parallel play.

There are wider implications for the approach, which involve writing, the arts and particularly visual arts, which I’ll explore in another posting.

  1. [1] Edel, Leon, ed. Letters by Henry James. 4 vols. London: Macmillan, 1974-84, II, 438, 21 October 1893.
  2. [2] Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson. Vailima Edition. 27 vols. London, 1923, Letters, vol.23, 296. Letter to Henry James, July 1893.

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