You organize a playdate for your baby, and he sits in a corner playing by himself. Or you observe toddlers at a daycare who are happily playing alongside each other, but not with each other.
What’s going on? Aren’t little ones supposed to be learning to socialize?
Yes, but at this age they don’t learn social skills from peers. They learn them from you. Babies and toddlers love playing with people in their “inner circle” (like parents, caregivers, or immediate family). But put them in a room with a same-aged peer, and they likely prefer to play alone. They do their own thing simply because they haven’t developed the social and emotional skills to interact with other little ones. Their play skills evolve in stages, bringing them closer and closer to cooperative play.
Stages of Play for Babies and Toddlers
In the 1920s, researcher Mildred Parten identified stages of play from birth through late childhood. These stages are still widely used as milestones for play. We’ll take at look at the baby and toddler stages, but remember that all children are different. It’s common for little ones to follow this timeline, but some are naturally more social with other children, especially if they know them well.
Birth to 3 Months — “Unoccupied Play”
You may not think of babies this age playing. It looks more like random waving of the arms and legs. But all that wiggling teaches babies about their bodies and surroundings, and forms important connections for learning how to grasp and manipulate objects during play.
Before Age 2 — “Solitary & Onlooker Play”
When little ones share play space before age 2, it’s developmentally appropriate for them to not interact. As they near their second birthday, they become more aware of other children (sometimes watching or commenting on what they’re doing) but still prefer to play alone.
Around Age 2 — “Parallel Play”
Around their second birthday, toddlers progress to playing alongside other children but not actually playing with them. They may sit beside each other playing with toy cars, occasionally observing each other or talking, but not playing a cooperative game like a car race.
Just because little ones don’t want to play together doesn’t mean they don’t want each other’s toys. Head over here for tips about settling sharing squabbles.
What These Stages Mean for You
Even though your baby or toddler may not be interested in playing with other children, he loves to play with you. Whether it’s structured or unstructured play, playtime with parents and caregivers is essential to optimal development. Playing alone also has its benefits. Around his first birthday he starts feeling comfortable playing alone (even if just for a few minutes).
When you’re with other children your child’s age, you can start to familiarize him with the idea of cooperative play by facilitating group games (see our BabySparks activities “Give & Receive III” and “Team Bubbles” for inspiration). The key is that you remain involved to model and guide interaction during play.
As his social, emotional and play skills develop, your child will gradually become more interested in playing with other children. By age 4, most children engage in cooperative play.