Parallel play isn’t just for kids

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“Want to read quietly next to each other in Riverside Park?” I texted a friend on a Sunday afternoon in July. I was exhausted from being out too late the night before and filled with the dread that clings to those last weekend hours – but I didn’t want to be alone. “See you there at 1 o’clock?” She replied and I packed my backpack, excited to spend another afternoon both alone and with a friend.

The term parallel play usually refers to young children who play independently of each other, but it can also be a valuable way to think about relationships between adults. Mildred Parten, a sociologist, first identified the concept in her 1929 thesis as one of six categories of group play in early childhood. While not a separate phase of development, engaging in side play is an important part of how toddlers learn to interact with others, share, and become beings. social. Think of kids quietly building their own separate towers with blocks or running around the playground without really interacting. While they do not engage with each other, these children also do not play entirely on their own.

For adults, what makes parallel play different from two people ignoring each other in the same room is a solid foundation for their relationship, explained Dr Amir Levine, psychiatrist and co-author of “Attached : The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It can help you find – and keep – love. “Side play is one of the hallmarks of secure relationships, but it has to be done right,” Dr. Levine said. “It’s all a question of availability. If you know the other person is available, and if you need them, they will take care of you, then you feel safe.

When you don’t have a secure relationship, trying to act independently of your friend or partner while sharing the same space can backfire. I often remember an article on Reddit that went viral last year about a 33-year-old man who destroyed the blanket his 21-year-old girlfriend spent six months knitting because he felt ignored. Dr Levine said: “The same behavior can be observed from two different places: if the person feels safe, they will not be doing the knitting, et cetera. It will be magical to be able to do things in parallel under the same roof. But, if the person doesn’t feel cared for, then these things make them feel lonely. Theoretically, in a more secure relationship, he could have taken up his own salon hobby and spent some quality time with her.

Indeed, the existence of a parallel game in a partnership can be an indicator of a healthy partnership. Sean Westaway, an IT director in Raleigh, North Carolina, said he and his wife often played separate video games, read or do crossword puzzles instead of suggesting activities to do together. For Mr. Westaway, thinking about the time they spend independently “playing” makes him calm. No one is trying to control or get stressed out when trying to come to an agreement on something to do. After spending so much time under one roof during the pandemic, he now sees side play as a vital part of their relationship.

While it might seem odd that being actively present for your partner makes it easier to find their independence, it’s actually an example of what psychologists call the addiction paradox. “There is a direct link between a strong sense of attachment and a willingness to explore,” Dr. Levine said. Although adults don’t play the same way as children, we can still approach the world with curiosity and a desire to explore. Often, when we feel secure, this motivation increases. But, said Dr Levine, “if we feel that our partner is not there for us, we develop tunnel vision and can only think about the relationship.” In this way, secure relationships give us the peace of mind to develop independent interests.

Sara Fowler, a creative writer in Washington, DC, said writing alongside her boyfriend helps them spend quality time together on weekends when he has to work. “Most weekends that I visit him, he makes me snacks and drinks. It’s honestly an A + couple activity, ”she said. “I like supporting him in his commitment to his work and I appreciate his encouragement in my writing goals. It’s a pleasant, pressure-free way to spend a few hours in your company.

Romantic partnerships aren’t the only relationships in which side play signals a secure attachment style, however. Sierra Reed, a creative and social strategist in Brooklyn, said her closest friends are the ones she can be with and “do nothing.” She can work while a friend cooks, for example. And engaging in these independent activities while being together makes Ms Reed feel closer to her friends, she said, not further apart. “These are the people I can just be with, feel the love and think ‘this is perfect’.”

The parallel play could also provide a clue as to why some roommates fared better than others during the pandemic. “During Covid, we couldn’t get away from the people we live with as often as usual,” said Dr. Jessi Gold, psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis. “While I don’t think we always need ‘time alone’, sometimes we need ‘to be together, but no time to actually interact’,” she said. “It’s a way of knowing that someone is there, that you’re not alone, like a safety blanket while being able to do whatever you want to do. This allows you not to get tired of that person you care about so much because you are doing something with them 24/7. “

For those who find it difficult to resume social activities after vaccination, side play may be a less overwhelming option than large group dinners or events. When Erin Pollocoff, a graphic designer in Madison, Wisconsin, hosted a friend from Michigan this summer, they spent their first weekend together in over a year reading, listening to music and painting each other. nails.

“It was really peaceful just sharing a space with a great friend and engaging as little or as much as we wanted,” Ms. Pollocoff said. “She’s coming back this fall and we plan to do more of the same.”

Dr Zheala Qayyum, director of child and adolescent psychiatry training at Boston Children’s Hospital, said low-pressure parallel activity “may help relieve stress and decrease feelings of isolation. “, noting that more introverted adults can particularly benefit from playing parallels. “It can give the feeling of a time well spent in close relationships and allows adults to continue activities that they would like to prioritize at that time.”

When I look back on some of the happiest times of my life, there is often an element of side play involved. Being on the lawn with my friends at summer camp, our Crazy Creek chairs in a circle, listening to Jack Johnson on my Walkman. Sitting on Nantucket Beach with my parents, each of us focused on a different novel. Making bracelets in Manhattan’s Riverside Park with two friends over the 4th of July weekend, deeply focused on beads. In every memory I feel safe and calm, happy to be in my own world with others nearby. Side play isn’t just something toddlers do, it’s what I turn to when I need a gentler way to be with those I love. It’s the comfort I seek when I text a friend asking her to spend the afternoon reading next to me in Central Park.


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