Toddler prefers to play alone, not with peers

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  April 19, 2020

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It can be disappointing if your child is playing alone, especially if his or her peers are playing together as a group.

You may feel an instinct to step in and work on getting your child to make friends at all costs.

But intervening may not always be the best option, and in most cases, you probably just need to chill.

Why does my toddler prefer to play alone

"Parents really should do their best not to convey their own fears and feelings to their children," said Sarah Ockwell-Smith, author of the book. Gentle Discipline.

The book is also available as audiobook on Storytel that I wrote about before. A great time saver in our busy life.

Those who struggle the most are parents who are naturally very outgoing themselves with a wide circle of friends, who then have to raise naturally introverted children who prefer to play alone or with just one close friend.

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This is especially true if your child has not yet entered kindergarten. Children under four will often play in parallel.

That's when two kids in the same room are playing near each other, but actually playing alone, like two adults sitting at the same table, each staring at their phones.

Parallel play is crucial because it is the way kids socialize before their sense of social etiquette begins.

Over time, children begin to understand that not everyone thinks and feels the same.

But before that, if they're incredibly self-centered, a young child will believe the toys they're playing with are theirs even if they aren't and others will want to play with them too.

This is why some toddlers play like real spoiled litters. And nobody wants to play with a spoiled brat.

The result is that parents have to make a judgment and determine whether

Real difficulties with social relationships can be an indicator of autism spectrum disorder, and children with other special educational needs, such as ADHD, may have difficulty forming relationships with their peers.

But often it is more about the adults who expect children to act like adults.

Introversion in itself is not a problem that needs to be corrected. Some adults also often prefer to be alone.

I love to party with friends and family, but I am also an introvert and still enjoy being in my own company at 39.

Let them be themselves, even if it is very different from how you were as a child, or think they should be.

The worst thing you can do is try to change them, try to make them more social, or play with others more. This is almost always counterproductive!

Social stages of play

The best way to learn is to play.

Children can't go alone learning about science in a playful way, math and engineering, but they can also learn important social skills while playing.

Children can learn about problem solving, standing up for themselves, decision-making skills, working in groups, sharing and resolving conflicts.

As children develop and grow, so does their way of playing.

To better understand what stage your toddler might be in and to be able to monitor their play, let's take a brief look at how social play develops and changes over time for children.

There are six stages of social play and it starts at birth.

Free game

I know this is hard to believe, but the game starts at birth.

You know those random movements infants make with no clear purpose? This is actually the beginning of the game.

Solitaire game

This phase, which starts in childhood and is common in toddlers, is when children start to play independently.

When engaged in solitary play, children do not seem to notice other children sitting or playing nearby during this type of play.

Just because it starts in childhood and toddlerhood doesn't mean it has to stop.

All age groups can (and should!) Have some time for independent, lonely play and one child will get out of this faster than another.

Play spectator

Spectator play occurs most often during the toddler years, but can happen at any age. This stage is when children see others playing.

The child watching the others playing may ask other children questions, but it usually takes no effort to get involved.

This can happen if a child is shy, unsure of the rules or hesitant to participate in the game.

Parallel play

Parallel play is mostly found in toddlers, although it occurs in any age group.

Parallel play starts when children start playing side by side with other children without any interaction.

While it may seem like they don't interact, they do pay attention to each other. This is the beginning of the desire to be with other children.

This phase is really starting to lay the groundwork for the more complex social stages of the game.

Associative play

Around the age of three to four, they eventually become more interested in the other kids than the toys.

At some point, a child will start to communicate more with the other child they are playing with; this is called associative play.

They start asking questions and talking about the toys and what they are making. This is the beginning of understanding how to interact with others.

During associative play, children within the group have similar goals (for example: build a tower out of blocks).

However, they do not set rules and there is no formal organization.

Social game

Kids don't start socializing until around three or four. They begin to share ideas and toys and follow established rules and guidelines.

They play shop and decide who will play which role. They can work together to build something or maybe play a simple game together.

This is really where a child learns and practices social skills such as working together, being flexible, taking turns playing and problem solving.

As children progress through the game stages, their play becomes more complex and involves more and more interaction with others.

For kids to practice social skills such as working together, compromising, and problem solving, the best way to do that is to let them play.

They will remember the rhythms and melodies of social interactions much more smoothly if we give them the time and space to play.

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Speelkeuze.nl is a content marketer, father and loves trying out new toys. As a child, he came into contact with everything around games when his mother started the Tin Soldier in Ede. Since 2016, he and his team have been creating helpful blog articles to help loyal readers with fun play ideas.