What Is Solitary Play & Is It Important? 8 AMAZING Benefits!

By Paula McLaren •  Updated: 07/02/21 •  9 min read

Solitary play is the beginning of your little one’s ability to play, engage, imagine and develop a sense of self.

And by encouraging your baby to play independently you are opening up their minds to the wonders of self-focused play and self-regulation. 

Never underestimate the power of solitary play… It’s the gift that keeps on giving. 

So, here’s all the information you need to know about playing independently!

What Is Solitary Play?

Solitary play (which is also known as independent play) is one of the 6 stages of play where a child starts to play independently. 

This stage occurs before children are developmentally ready to play with other children as babies and toddlers explore and manipulate objects that they come into contact with to figure out how they work and what they are able to do.

So what are the defining features of solitary play?

What Are The 3 Characteristics Of Solitary Play?

Solitary play is identified by the following 3 characteristics:

  1. Playing alone without seeking help or guidance, 
  2. Exploration of objects and toys alone,
  3. Not playing interactively with others.

When Do Babies Enter This Phase Of Play?

Solitary play is common between the ages of 1 and 3 but you will see your baby engaging in solitary play from even earlier than that. 

As soon as a baby is able to reach out and pat at or grab a toy they are capable of solitary play!

Even when young babies play happily with their play gym or a crawling baby actively chooses a toy to play with and then does so alone… these are all examples of solitary or independent play in younger babies. 

Following the six stages of play, solitary play is the next step from unoccupied play but comes before onlooker play.

The Six Stages Of Play

Here’s a bit more information about the 6 stages of play:

Unoccupied Play (Newborn)

This is the first stage of play when your baby will be observing the world around them but with little or no interaction.

Solitary Play ( 4 Months Upwards)

Once your baby’s vision and fine motor skills develop and they start reaching and grabbing objects they are able to engage in solitary play. 

This is an exploratory phase in young babies and a phase that lasts well into toddlerdom. Many toddlers will continue to engage in solitary play even when they have moved onto other stages of play.

Onlooker Play ( 2 To 3 Years )

This type of play is when your young child will watch what others are doing but will not play with them.

They may talk to other children but they will not engage with what they are doing.

Parallel Play (2-3 Years)

This is the stage of play where toddlers will play alongside their peers and in their general area but does NOT interact with them yet.

Associative Play (3 Years Of Age)

Like parallel play the young child will play alongside others but will now engage in similar or the same activity; sometimes mimicking what others are doing such as running around or dressing up.

However, their play will not be co-operative, organised or have a goal.

Cooperative Play (4-5 Years Of Age)

This is the final stage of play when young children play with each other in a cooperative fashion.

They are interested in their peers and what they are doing and play games that require them to work together.

This stage of play helps children learn how to deal with conflict, compromise and regulate their emotions and is a very important stage in their social development.

What Is The Difference Between Solitary And Parallel Play In Particular?

This is a common question that parents often ask and the truth is…

The main difference between solitary play and parallel play is that in solitary play the child does not pay any attention to what others around them are doing.

Simple as that.

Parallel play is when a young child plays alongside others and is aware that they are there but is not ready to play with them in a cooperative fashion.

So how does solitary play help our little ones develop?

How Does Solitary Play Help With Emotional Development?

There are some very important emotional benefits to your child learning to play independently.

Overstimulated toddlers can very easily end up in a state of meltdown so being able to play independently and alone, allows your little one to have time to regulate their emotions and give them time to re-centre.

Introducing quiet times into your child’s daily routine where they are encouraged and allowed to play independently, allows them some downtime where they can relax and just be in the moment.  

Improving Self-Confidence

Solitary play can also help your child become more independent and less reliant on others. 

A child that is able to play independently will develop a strong sense of self and belief in their own abilities.

Allowing your little one time alone to play from a young age will also help with separation anxiety, not only when they finally have to go to nursery or school, but also when they need to fall asleep alone or self settle.

So what are some other benefits of solitary play?

What Are The Benefits Of Solitary Play?

As well as the benefits to your little one’s emotional development, there are huge number of benefits to solitary play. 

From developing social independence, building self-confidence and encouraging a flourishing imagination, there is much that your child can gain from playing independently. 

It has also been proven that children who engage in solitary play are more able to focus and have longer attention spans, which will undoubtedly make them better learners as they grow.

Here is a quick list of the main benefits of solitary play:

How Can Parents Encourage Solitary Play?

Obviously, young children should never be left unattended for long periods of time and you should always be keeping an eye on your little one…

BUT you can encourage your child to engage in solitary play by offering them opportunities to do so from an early age.

Leaving your baby to play in their play gym without you showing them what to do, as soon as they are able to swipe or grab at the toys, is a great way to start.

Later on, make sure you have times in the day when you allow your baby or toddler to just explore the world around them with you keeping a watchful eye on them.

Let Them Take The Lead

With babies, you can put certain toys in their reach and watch what they do with them. Allow them to explore what they and the objects can do. 

Don’t always feel the need to offer them options or show them what to do. 

Let them take the lead!

When your young child is playing, you don’t always have to play with them. You can be present in the room but let them play independently.

REMEMBER: If your toddler is struggling to play alone you can always offer guidance and encouragement from the sidelines rather than doing things for them.

Finally, encourage your child to do things for themselves as soon as they are physically able. 

This will not only help with their ability to play independently but it will help to develop other areas such as fine motor and cognitive skills too.

In conclusion, children that play independently are learning through play and building on and developing important life skills for their future learning and emotional well being.

15 Examples Of Solitary Play

In infants:

  1. Interacting with a play gym
  2. Looking at board books alone
  3. Playing with building blocks
  4. Playing with nesting cups 
  5. Playing with activity cubes
  6. Playing with shaking toys and rattles

Check out my Parenting Toolbox for my recommendations for building blocks, activity cubes, toys and more!

In toddlers and preschoolers:

  1. Completing a puzzle alone
  2. Colouring or painting
  3. Playing in a sandpit 
  4. Imaginative play such as talking to and dressing dolls or playing in a pretend kitchen
  5. Playing with wooden blocks
  6. Putting together lego
  7. Looking at books alone
  8. Playing with toy garages, cars and trains
  9. Talking and playing with dolls and teddies

3 Common Concerns About Solitary Play

Understanding what level of play your child is emotionally and developmentally ready for is important in your assessment of how your child is doing socially.

Common concerns about a child who engages in a lot of solitary play can include:

While parents are usually very happy when their little one is able to amuse themselves and give them a bit of a break, parents may become anxious when their preschool child prefers to play alone and not with others.

If this is the case, then slowly start by letting your little one observe the room when they are around other children or set up a playdate with one child on their home turf where they feel more confident.

Remember that all children are different and develop at different rates.

If your child is not a social butterfly that is OK and they will eventually strike up a friendship with one or two children that they feel comfortable with.

Always remember that some children are naturally happier to play alone (much like some adults!) and some children are naturally shy and may struggle to socialise with other children, particularly in a larger group.

In truth, a lot will come down to the personality of the child.

TOP TIP: If you are overly concerned then you can have a discussion with your paediatrician who may suggest some counselling if they feel there is a need.

If you enjoyed this post about ‘solitary play’ and you know other parents who may find it helpful, be sure to give it a share!

Do you have any blog post ideas that you’d like me to write about? Or have any questions about parenting (doesn’t have to be anything specific, just your worries, concerns or advice) be sure to send me an email at [email protected] and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

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.