Solitary Play For Kids — Everything Parents Need To Know

What Is Solitary Play? Here Are Some Examples And Activities For Your Growing Baby

October 12, 2020 Updated February 9, 2021

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Tatiana Syrikova/Pexels

Looking for more examples of play in babies, toddlers, and preschoolers? Check out our package with more information on onlooker play, parallel play, associative play, and cooperative play

Being a new mom usually involves moments where you want to savor every second and bond with your baby. You can’t believe you get to spend time with the precious little angel and never want it to end. And then sometimes it involves sitting on the toilet, wondering if you’ll ever be able to pee with the door closed again, while frantically Googling “how many months until baby plays and entertains itself.” Of course you don’t want to rush the time you have with your little one when they’re, well, little, but it can also be fun to watch your child develop and start to play.

Believe it or not, there are actually six different stages of play, which were developed by American sociologist Dr. Mildred Parten Newhall in 1929. One of these stages is solitary play. Here’s what solitary play involves, along with some activities and examples of it.

The six stages of play

If you take a look at kids interacting on a playground or in a daycare and lump everything they’re doing together as “play,” you may be interested to learn that there are actually six distinct stages of play. These were developed by Parten Newhall as part of her doctoral dissertation, which she finished in 1929 and went on to publish in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology in 1932. Not only was Parten Newhall one of the first researchers to seriously study play, her stages are still regularly referenced today, more than 70 years later.

Parten Newhall’s six stages of play include:

  • Unoccupied play
  • Solitary (or independent) play
  • Onlooker play
  • Parallel play
  • Associative play
  • Cooperative play

These stages take various factors into consideration, including a child’s age, mood, and social setting. And while her research focused on children between the ages of two and five, it’s important to keep in mind that every child develops at their own pace, meaning that there’s no “normal” play behavior for all three-year-olds, for example. Here, we’re going to focus on solitary play. Here’s what you need to know.

What is solitary play?

As the name suggests, “solitary play” is when children keep themselves entertained without relying on a parent, caregiver, or other kids to lead or socially interact with them, according to Michigan State University. Do kids engaged in solitary play realize they’re playing alone? Maybe! They may notice other children around, or they easily could stay in their own little world. Should this concern you as a parent? Definitely not. Solitary play is only the second stage of play, meaning that your kiddo has just started on this journey and is still figuring things out.

What are the benefits of solitary play?

There is nothing wrong with your kid wanting to play by themselves. It’s actually integral to their social development, so it’s important to let them explore this phase and time. Not only that, but there are some major benefits to solitary play, including giving kids the chance to explore their surroundings (and toys) on their own, learn new or master existing motor and cognitive skills, and get them ready to eventually play with other children.

Solitary is a very creative and imaginative time for your little one. When they’re playing alone, they’re also thinking… a lot. This type of play helps your kid become more independent and self-reliant. This is a healthy part of social development because it’s important for your kid to understand that they can depend on themselves to have fun even if there are other children around.

Playing alone isn’t always a bad thing. It’s part of what kids need to do to learn how to play with others. For your child, this is a chance to take charge and create a relaxed environment where your kiddo doesn’t have to depend on others to have fun. That is a self-esteem booster that helps your child become more self-sufficient. Solitary play is a great way for your nugget to improve and explore their levels of concentration and work ethic. They’ll also learn how to complete tasks on their own.

What are some examples of solitary play?

Solitary play can take different forms depending on the age of the child. Some examples of solitary play for babies include:

  • Looking at bright and colorful pictures in board books
  • Creating a makeshift “drum” (i.e. banging one object on another one so it makes a sound)
  • Stacking and/or sorting cups or bowls
  • Using their activity pad/baby gym
  • Holding and looking at a stuffed animal

As babies turn into toddlers, their preferred methods of solitary play change a little, too, and could include examples like:

  • Flipping through the pages of a book (as if they were “reading” it)
  • Playing with blocks or Lego
  • Keeping themselves entertained in a play kitchen (whether that’s pretend cooking, eating, or just sorting and rearranging their plastic food)
  • Drawing or coloring on sheets of paper
  • Putting together an easy puzzle

What are some solitary play activities?

In addition to the ones already mentioned above, solitary play activities can include:

  • Giving your kid sidewalk chalk so they can draw outside
  • Drawing a hopscotch board (outdoors) and then turning it over to your child to play with it however they want to
  • Providing them with a match game (the little ones can look at the pictures and the older ones can try to find matches)
  • Introducing them to magnets (in a safe environment, like in front of the refrigerator)
  • Making a collage is a great way for your kid to get creative and put all their artistic thinking onto the page. Make sure you have markers, pipe cleaners, glitter, paint, and glue.
  • Setting your little one up with a blanket and their favorite plushies for a teddy bear picnic
  • Tucking your kiddo into a cozy spot and turning on a children’s story podcast
  • Filling balloons with playdough and other substances for a sensory experience
  • Breaking out the Etch-a-Sketch or Magnadoodle
  • Handing your little one a toy catalog and asking them to circle their favorite items
  • Stickers are the foundation of childhood, so give your little one their first sticker book. They can spend time peeling and sticking their designs wherever they want in the book.

Does starting solitary play mean that your child won’t want to play with you again? That would be highly unlikely. But at least if they can entertain themselves, you have a better shot at peeing and showering alone.

How can parents support solitary play?

It’s important to remember that solitary play isn’t strange or means that your nugget is antisocial. It’s an important part of growing up and even adults do it sometimes.

  • Push your child to dance to the beat of their own drum by encouraging them to enjoy their own company. If there are no children to play with or other kids aren’t interested, let them know that they can have a successful playdate on their own.
  • Tell them to think of ways to play even if it’s by themselves and encourage their ideas.