Help! My Toddler Won’t Play With Others! Is Something Wrong?

By Paula McLaren •  Updated: 04/27/21 •  17 min read

Over the years, I have heard many parents ask me “My toddler won’t play with others… Is something wrong?” and the truth is… 

Depending on the age of your toddler, it is quite NORMAL for them not to play with other children. BUT… You do need to understand what to expect from your child at different stages in order to understand if anything is wrong or not.

Children go through specific milestones in their social development and social play is one of the last areas to fully develop and it usually coincides with them attending preschool.

So, in today’s post I want to share with you EVERYTHING I know about social development and help you understand what is happening in your little one’s brain when deciding to play with others so you can help them become healthy, confident, kind and caring people!

Sound good? Great! Let’s get started!

My Toddler Won’t Play With Others

From the moment they are born, the main focus of your toddler’s life is YOU.

The next people to make a social impact will be immediate family members such as siblings and grandparents. Only later will other children start to become interesting to your toddler, but even then they may not play with them.

With that in mind… It becomes a little clearer as to WHY your toddler might be hesitant to move away from playing with you!

How Does Social Development Work In Toddlers?

For the first 18 months of life, familiar people are the main focus of a child’s life. They may find other children fascinating but they will be more emotionally attached to significant adults in their life.

Then, between 18 months and 2 years, your toddler will start to notice other children but NOT engage in cooperative play with them.

At 2 1/2 years old, they will now play alongside other children. This is known as ‘parallel play‘ and it is an important part of your toddler’s social development. 

NOTE: If your toddler does engage in play with another child at this age, they will probably be older than they are.

By 3 years of age, children will begin to play with each other. They will copy each other and start to take turns in games. This is known as ‘associative play‘. By now most children will separate from their parents quite easily.

4-year-olds are well on their way to cooperative play by now and they will prefer to play with others rather than alone. They will make up and abide by simple rules when playing.

Then finally, by 5 years old, your child’s friendships will begin to influence the way they behave. They will want to be liked, will want to please their friends and will become excited at the prospect of spending time with them. 

This social development will continue throughout your child’s life and will never really end!

Emotions, likes, dislikes, friendships and life experiences will all play a role in social development as your child grows into teenagehood and adulthood… This is just the beginning!

When Should You Be Concerned That Your Toddler Is Not Playing With Others?

So, as you can see… social development is a relatively slow process!

It is closely linked to emotional and cognitive development and understanding how our fellow humans function and feel about us is a lifelong lesson and our social experiences in early childhood can hugely influence how we function socially later in life. 

Obviously, the way in which we socialise varies from person to person and it is the same for children. Some are naturally more confident while others are more shy. Both are perfectly normal but for a shy child, learning how to socialise can be harder. 

Play is a very important part of child development, especially social development… So let’s deal with your child not playing with others by age and see if there really is a problem that you should be worried about:

My Toddler Won’t Play With Others At 2 Years Old

I would not worry if your 2 year old won’t play with others.

2 year olds tend not play with others but rather parallel play alongside other children.

Expecting your child to play with others at this age is something that most are not developmentally ready to do. 

However, offering your toddler plenty of opportunities to spend time around other children is great for this age group, as it sets them up for the next stage in their social development.

My Toddler Won’t Play With Others At 3 Years Old

This is the age at which associative play really starts to kick in. But it is also the age at which they may start to become wary of strangers. So, if your 3-year-old is reluctant and won’t play with others there are things that you can do to help.

Firstly, you can help by joining in with the play too. If your little one sees you interacting with other children they will get the message that it is safe for them join too and it will give them more confidence to interact with their peers. 

It is important to remember that at this age children will NOT be playing cooperatively, but will copy what others are doing. For example, if one child runs, they may all start!

You can also encourage your little one to take part, but don’t pressurise them to do so. Some children of this age need to spend a lot of time observing. It is your job to be by their side as they do so and show them that it is safe and fun to take part.

My Toddler Won’t Play With Others 4 Years Old

By now I would expect your child to be more interested in cooperative play and wanting to interact with other children their own age. They are now able to follow simple rules in games and indulge in imaginative play with others.

If your 4 year old won’t play with others and is struggling then you may need to take the pressure off. Planning playdates at home where they feel comfortable and confident are a good place to start.

Come up with some structured activities and discuss beforehand what they would like to do. This means they don’t have to rely on spontaneous play which is often difficult for a reserved or shy child.

Setting up activities like water play, sand play, painting, play dough or cooking together are great for these occasions. They require cooperation and you can be there on the sidelines to offer encouragement.

After playdates at home, you can move on to playdates at the park or go for a picnic where you can play ball games and explore. Keep the groups small and encourage your child to take part with you at first and once they feel more confident, let them play alone.

My Toddler Won’t Play With Others At 5 Years Old

If your 5 year old won’t play with others and is struggling to fit in socially then they are probably suffering from a lack of confidence or shyness.

If this is part of their natural personality then you will need to spend a lot of time reassuring them that they are doing OK.  

Having said all this, if your child is still upset by the idea of being apart from you at 5 years of age and won’t interact with others, even one well-known friend despite you trying your best…

It may be a good idea to consult with your doctor just to ensure that there are no underlying developmental issues that need to be addressed.

Being A Shy Child Is Perfectly Normal

Being shy is fine! 

And as long as your 5 year old is making eye contact, is polite and is thriving in every other way, all is well. Not all children can be social butterflies!

In social situations, your child may just need more time to settle in than others and will want to observe the room first before they feel comfortable enough to join in.

The best way to handle a child that is reluctant to play with others is to not make a big deal out of it. Allow them to take their time, talk about what they might like to do or join in with.

Don’t shame them for not wanting to join in, but spend a lot of time boosting their self-esteem.

In a school situation, you could discuss with the teacher if there are any other quiet children in the class with whom your little one may get on with. They just need one other child that they can feel a connection with to help them move on socially.

Above all, make your child feel OK by telling them how much you love them and how proud you are of them. Never make them feel ashamed of feeling socially awkward or shy… just offer lots of love and support.

As always, arrange social situations such as play dates with one other child to help them get used to socialising with others.

REMEMBER: Do not label your child as shy and do not try and force them into a situation where they feel uncomfortable.

16 Ways To Improve Your Toddler’s Social Skills

Your toddler will learn how to play from you first. That is why playing with your baby is so important. You will be the first person to teach them how to share, take turns, be kind and cooperate with others. Click here to jump to a handy infographic!

As a parent, you can help your toddler get ready for social play – check out this post about What Is Social Play & Why Is It Important? to learn more about about social play for children! – by teaching and guiding them through the basics of social interactions when it is age-appropriate. Here are my top 16 ways to help develop these skills!

1. Teach Them How To Share

Even from a very young age, you can teach your child how to share. As they grow, you can encourage them to share their toys with you or their siblings and it is also important that they see you sharing with others too.

When they share successfully (which isn’t always easy for them!) you should praise them enthusiastically.

2. Show Them How To Take Turns

As with sharing, you can start to play simple games with your young toddler that involve the two of you taking turns. If you do this from a young age your toddler will have accepted that this is what people do by the time they are old enough to engage in cooperative play with other children.

TOP TIP: Sharing and taking turns can be difficult for toddlers (especially under the age of 3!) so expect some setbacks and be prepared to step in and negotiate.

3. Teach Them To Be Kind To Others

This is an essential social skill and involves your toddler learning about empathy and understanding their own emotions too. 

You can help by showing kindness and empathy towards others and encourage talking about feelings and how good it feels when people are nice to each other.  

A young child who has been encouraged to be kind is more likely to be successful when playing and socialising with others.

4. Arrange Playdates Where You Can Watch And Supervise

Arranging playdates even before your little one can play ‘with’ others will get them used to other children and adults. Playdates at home on familiar territory will make it easier for your child to practice their social skills. Here are some great toddler activities to try -> Activities For 18 Month Olds!

5. Get Out And About

Take your child out and let them see the world. Even if they just want to observe, give them plenty of opportunities to watch other people socialise.

6. Encourage Them To Use Their Imagination 

Young children love to play make-believe and it is an important part of their social development as they practice grown-up situations.

Encouraging your little one to engage in imaginative play with you first will set them up to feel confident to do so with their peers later on.

7. Teach Them To Have Good Manners

An essential social skill is having good manners. Model good manners to your little one even before they can talk. Again, watching you will be the best way for them to learn this essential social skill. 

8. Provide Opportunities For Them To Play Alongside Others 

If you can provide opportunities for your child to play alongside others without the pressure of necessarily joining in, it is a great help. Visits to the park, attending playgroups or mother and toddler groups are great for this!

9. Talk To Them About Situations That They Find Intimidating

It is important to acknowledge your child’s emotions in a social situation that they may be struggling with. Once they are old enough to vocalise what they are feeling, talk about why they may be uncomfortable and offer them ways to feel better.

Listening to your children will give you a valuable insight into their world. 

REMEMBER:Never make your toddler feel strange or odd about not wanting to join in.

10. Show Them How To Greet People 

Knowing how to greet others is another important social skill and again, one they can learn from you. If they can comfortably say hello and tell people their names, it can often be an ice breaker and make it easier for them to start up a conversation.

11. Be Confident & Calm When Introducing Them To New Situations

If you know your child is anxious about new social situations then you need to exude confidence! This can be quite tough if you are worried about how your child is going to behave but try your best to show them you are not concerned.

Fake it until you make it and you toddler will feel better about a situation if you are OK with the situation too.

12. Let Them Survey The Room & Socialise At Their Own Pace

It is always fine to let your little survey the room first. Never force your child to take part and if they are reluctant, you can make the first move and join in the play with them.

With you, by their side, they are more likely to have a go.

13. Find What Social Activities They Feel Most Comfortable With

Another great way to improve your child’s social skills is to find what social activities they feel the most comfortable doing. 

If they enjoy painting or crafting then make or find opportunities for them to do these activities with other children. If they enjoy swimming, for example, enrol them in a swimming class. Here are some great outdoor activities for your little one to try -> Outdoor Activities For Toddlers!

TOP TIP: If they feel confident in the activity then they are more likely to relax.

14. Don’t Make Your Child Stand Out

Children do not like to be different. They want to be like their peers.

One way to ensure this is to dress them like other children. You may have a unique dress style that you want to pass on, but they will not want to attract attention, so keep things simple.

15. Talk To Daycare Leaders And Teachers

If you are concerned about how your child is behaving socially at daycare or preschool then talk to their carers or teachers about how they are doing to decide if any course of action is to be taken.

16. Teach Them Cooperation

Another important social skill is cooperation. Teach your child cooperation in the home by making them help clear away toys and tidy up.

They can also help you around the house. Again, you are their best role model and if they see you cooperating with others they will follow suit when playing with their peers.

16 Ways To Improve Your Toddler's Social Skills

FAQ About Toddler Playing With Others

Here are 2 common questions that I get asked about why my toddler won’t play with others:

1. Why Does My Child Not Want To Play With Friends?

Put simply… some children just like to play alone and do not need to spend time mixing with others. 

However, there is a lot to be learnt from associative play and you should try to encourage, but not force, your child to play with others if it is age-appropriate.

Inviting one friend around to play is a great way to start developing your child’s social interaction. If they are on home turf, they will feel more confident and by only having one other child to deal with will be easier than trying to integrate into a larger group.

From these one-on-one interactions, they can learn how to read social signals and become aware of other children’s feelings, likes and dislikes all within the safety of their own home. 

As always, lead by example. Show them how to be kind, listen to others and take turns. If they really don’t want to spend a lot of time with other children, you and the extended family will be where they will learn their social skills.

Talk Together

Finally and most importantly, TALK! 

Encourage your child to vocalise why they prefer to play alone. You may find that they don’t like noisy or chaotic situations and that playing with others in a calmer environment suits them best. 

Also, talk to daycare leaders and teachers about how your child is interacting with others within their peer group. This could give you an insight into what your young one is thinking and feeling and you can adapt play situations to fit your toddler better.

2. What To Do If A Child Refuses To Participate In An Activity?

JUST GO WITH IT.

Let them watch and do not make them feel bad about not taking part. They may really enjoy being an observer and you could do more harm than good by trying to force them to take part.

Gentle encouragement should be your main plan and if they are old enough, find out what they don’t like about the activity. Maybe it is too noisy, too scary or just too busy.

If they are feeling unsure then suggest if they would like to have a go, but that they can stop whenever they want to. Offer to do the activity with them too; this will relieve the pressure and may make them feel safe enough to have a try.

Ultimately, if your child does not want to take part then let it be. Some children and adults are quite content to not take part in activities and are happy to be observers. 

My Toddler Won’t Play With Others Recap

Remember, there are lots of ways that you can help your toddler develop their social skills depending on their age.

But the most important thing to remember is…

You are their best role model and making your child feel safe and loved whilst instilling a strong sense of self will help them on their social development journey.

Go slow, be patient, remain positive and calm and gently encourage your toddler to engage in social situations. You’ve got this!

And voila! There’s your complete breakdown about why ‘my toddler won’t play with others’ and if you enjoyed this content and know other parents who might be interested in learning about social development in their toddler, be sure to give this article a share!

If you have any further questions about why your toddler won’t play with others or you have any further blog suggestions, be sure to drop me an email: [email protected], I love hearing from you.

Thank you for your continued support and until next time, happy parenting!

Paula McLaren

Paul Mclaren - Norland Nurse NNEB RSH is the founder of Teething to Tantrums and has been in the child care industry as a Norland Nanny since 1982. Since then, her mission has been to help parents become the best they can possibly be. And each year, she continues to help more families understand their child's development, the trials and joys of parenting and of course, how to care for their little ones.

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