As your little one starts to play with toys and explore objects around your home, they may do so interacting with you at times, and at other times, go at it alone.
Solitary play, sometimes called independent play, is a stage of infant development where your child plays alone. While that may seem sad at first — is your baby already preparing to leave the nest? — rest assured that they’re learning important skills.
Solitary play teaches babies how to entertain themselves — undoubtedly helpful when you need to get things done — and also fosters their future independence.
Solitary play is often first seen in children ages 0–2, before they start interacting and playing with other kids. Independent play is also a stage that older preschoolers and children choose to engage in after they know how to play with others, proving just how valuable this skill is.
Solitary play is considered the second of Mildred Parten Newhall’s six stages of play. Here’s where it falls, if you’re keeping track:
- Unoccupied play. Your baby is just starting to take in the world around them without much interaction beyond observation. Their surroundings are fascinating!
- Solitary play. Much to your delight, your baby starts reaching for and interacting with objects. Sure, they’re playing alone — but it’s delightful to see the wonderment at this stage. They don’t yet understand or care that others around them may be playing, too.
- Onlooker play. Your child observes others, but isn’t playing together with them. You may notice your little one pausing in their play to watch you as you do things around a room.
- Parallel play. Your child plays at the same time as others in the general vicinity, but doesn’t interact with them. Think of a busy call center where rows of telemarketers are all making their own phone calls. (On second thought, don’t think of that.)
- Associative play. Your child plays next to or alongside other kids doing similar activities. They start to adorably talk to or interact with one another but won’t organize or synchronize activities.
- Cooperative play. Makin’ you proud — when your child plays with others cooperatively and is interested in both the other kids and the activity.
Your baby may start playing — we use the term a little loosely at this age — independently as young as 2 or 3 months, or as soon as they can start seeing bright colors and textures.
As they grow a little more, they’ll take a bigger and bigger interest in toys and objects around them. This may occur from 4–6 months. You can set them up on a mat or blanket on the floor and watch them take an interest in toys, objects, or a play gym without your help.
Solitary play will continue beyond babyhood. Most toddlers and preschoolers around ages 2–3 start to take an interest in interacting and playing with other children, but that doesn’t mean solitary play stops. It’s healthy for your child to play alone from time to time.
If you’re concerned about your little one’s play habits or worried they’re playing alone too often, talk to an amazing resource you have — your child’s pediatrician.
Solitary play for infants is downright adorable and may include:
- looking at colorful pictures in board books
- sorting and stacking nesting bowls
- interacting with their play gym
- playing with blocks
Examples of solitary play for toddlers/preschool-aged children — who may choose to play alone even when they are able to play with others — include:
- “reading” or flipping through books on their own
- working on a project like a Lego set
- putting together a puzzle
- coloring or painting on large sheets of paper or in coloring books
- playing with wooden blocks or a train set
- playing in their play kitchen
And because we could all use some additional ideas, here are some more solitary play options for your toddler/preschool-aged child if they’re upset to have no playmates around:
- Give your child a “Where’s Waldo” or “I-Spy” book they can look at by themselves.
- Watch your child play on a hopscotch board outside they can jump through without your help.
- Give your child age-appropriate matching card games they can play on their own.
- Look for age-appropriate sets of toys your child can put together on their own, like magnetic wooden blocks, Lego Duplo, or Magna-Tiles.
When your child is a newborn, you do everything for them — even hand them a toy. As they grow into the solitary play stage, they’ll start to reach for things nearby on their own. Even though they’re still so young, babies entering this phase start to develop independence.
It may be hard to see now, but they’ll eventually figure out how to problem solve, build, or do a new toy on their own. If you let them be without interfering, you’re allowing your child to become more independent later on. We know, it’s bittersweet.
Helps develop preferences and interests
When your baby is playing independently, they’re also developing their own preferences and interests. Later on, they may be part of a group of children who all like similar toys and activities.
For now, they’re deciding whether they like the red or green ball best. This is a must for understanding what they like and don’t like in the world, research shows.
Develops creativity and imagination
You can set out toys for your little one, but it’s up to them what they decide to play with during solitary play. Their focus is on the objects of their play only, and babies may even become upset if you try to join in or direct the play with the objects in front of them.
Don’t take it personally — developing a mind of their own and laying the foundation for future imagination is a good thing!
Develops powers of concentration, persistence, and completion
Research shows that later on, when your toddler or preschooler chooses to engage in solitary play, they’re in charge of their actions. This allows them to focus on what they want to do and learn to work through problems. They also learn to complete a task.
If this sounds pretty far off for your tiny baby currently playing alone in their play gym and not even able to sit up independently, give yourself a pat on the back anyway — you’re helping to ensure that they’ll be taskmasters before you know it.
Solitary play has so many benefits for your child. But around preschool age, if your child hasn’t started interacting or playing with other kids, you may be concerned.
You and your child’s caregivers can slowly start to encourage them to interact with other children who may have similar interests. Keep in mind, all children develop at their own pace, so your kid may start to play with others slightly later. That’s OK.
You can always talk to your child’s pediatrician about any concerns you have about their development. They can recommend a child psychologist or counselor, if needed.
Remember, even when your little one is playing alone, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to supervise them. Sit back and let your young child have their playtime while continuing to keep an eye on them. But try not to interfere unless it’s necessary.
One final note: Try to separate independent or solitary playtime from screen time. They aren’t the same thing. Excessive screen time for toddlers may interfere with healthy development, research shows.