Children Who Just Watch

While many young children, when given the opportunity, will immediately engage in play with others, families and early childhood teachers often encounter children who want only to watch from the side. These children will watch others playing around them - constructing a towering building; reenacting a battle of dinosaurs in the sandbox; putting on a puppet show - without actually getting involved.
Family members and teachers may be anxious when preschoolers do not engage in play with other children, but this "onlooker stage of play" can be an important step in the social development of young children. It is an opportunity for young children to learn and mentally practice interacting with others. With adult guidance, they'll benefit from this thoughtful time.
In the onlooker stage, children don't physically interact, but their minds and feelings are fully engaged in the play of others. You can see it in their faces and body language. Their eyes may open wide as they see a block building growing taller, then they may dart quickly to another corner to determine the location of the growling dinosaur sounds. Their faces may break into smiles at the antics of other children pretending to be monkeys and gorillas.
Each type of play has value: in solitary play, children acquire self-knowledge; other kinds of play help them build confidence, practice interacting, and learn how to cooperate with other children. Children who go through an onlooker (or "watcher") stage get to be mentally engaged without the potential intimidation of actually being in the thick of things.
This engagement offers children opportunities to mentally manipulate what they see and hear, organizing and integrating information and storing it away for future use. The children may actually be mentally placing themselves into a situation they are observing, and testing how they might respond if they were involved.
As "watchers," children have opportunities to manipulate their cognitive experience of the behaviors of others, gaining information, which will later be used within the context of their physical, verbal, emotional, and social behaviors. The use of this information is not just imitation, but a true understanding of the causes, actions, and consequences of particular behaviors - similar to the way preschoolers might use self-talk or private speech to review what they have learned about words and language. The onlooker stage offers an opportunity to watch and learn before stepping into the action.
All young children do some watching; some young children do it a lot. We now know that this is a valuable experience for children. As family members and as early childhood teachers, we are often anxious when preschoolers are not willing to engage overtly in play with other children. Perhaps we should allow them more time to watch and learn. When the time is right, they will be more comfortable and successful moving into the world of full social interaction.
Excerpted from "He's Watching! The Importance of the Onlooker Stage of Play" by Sarah Jane Anderson - an article in the NAEYC journal, Young Children.

Early Years Are Learning Years™ is a regular series from NAEYC providing tips to help parents and early childhood educators give young children a great start on learning.