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Toddlers: Social, Solitary and Parallel Play

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Hi Dr. Markham,

We have a lovely 21-month-old who interacts very well with adults who reach out and connect with him one-on-one. We've also seen him "flirt" with adults with whom he wants to connect. He's fantastic at amusing himself, is enraptured by music and books, and very talkative. However, he doesn't seem interested in other kids. Instead, he seems to prefer playing by himself, in a different part of the room from everyone else.

My main experience of this is at my gym childcare center, where he goes three times a week for 90 minutes each. He stays by himself in the infant area, listening to his music and playing with toys (they have infant and toddler toys there). So I come from my workout to see him off by himself. The three adults often seem to leave him to himself.

When I get together with other moms and kids, as well, he seems to anticipate seeing everyone (he says their names with pleasure) but he mostly runs around. The kids seems to register him and act curious, but he doesn't reciprocate, though he connects with and likes some of the other moms.

My questions: (a) At the gym childcare, should I ask the adults to pay special attention to him since, because he's off by himself, he doesn't get their attention with the other kids who are swarming around them? We have seen him come alive when someone takes the trouble to engage him. (b) At this stage, is his playing in a separate area by himself, or not being as curious about other kids as they are in him, a warning of some sort, about his development? (c) Finally, what can I do as a parent to provide him with social tools that will help him integrate when he's ready? Thanks very much for your input!


Dear Seetha,
Thanks for writing. The short answer to your question is that your son is completely normal and you have nothing to worry about.

Babies who are not yet able to manage their bodies engage in what we call "Onlooker" or "Observant" Play. One year olds begin engaging in "Solitary Play." Between the ages of two and three, toddlers start to engage in "Parallel Play" which is defined as when kids play next to, but not with, other kids. They may not seem to be interacting, but they are very aware of each other's presence. They watch each other covertly, copy each other's noises or actions, and sometimes grab a toy that the other kid puts down. Kids also play this way when they are introduced to a new group of children. This lets them assess the other kids and learn the best way to "enter" the group. Kids who find the group overwhelming may well play nearby, without actually engaging, for quite a long time.

So it is not at all unusual for a 21 month old to be playing "solitary." This could easily go on for another year. As long as your son has opportunities to be around other kids (when you get together with other moms, for instance), he will gradually begin to interact with them.

There is one important thing to keep in mind, though. The fact that your son "prefers to play by himself, in a different part of the room from everyone else" at your gym, and that he "mostly runs around" when you get together with other moms and kids, even though he seems to anticipate seeing everyone and says their names with pleasure, does give us some critical information about your little guy. I would deduce from this information that your son is a sensitive and perceptive person who is easily over-stimulated by the tumult of a bunch of kids. That could easily cause him to distance himself, particularly if you aren't there as a security blanket. It could also cause him to run in circles and act out.

Is this a problem? No, it's very common. But it does sometimes make kids act out and hit other kids because they are just too wound up. It also can make it stressful for them to be in groups of kids without a parent there. So I would advise you to experiment with some play opportunities with just one other child. I suspect you'll find your son much more interactive.

Contrary to popular belief, kids don't NEED the experience of being in a group of peers while they are toddlers. Developmentally speaking, what is most important right now for your son is not peers, but engaging with the adults who are important to him, and it sounds like that is working just fine. The fact that he "flirts" and "comes alive" with other adults who take the trouble to engage him is also a good sign, because it indicates that he likes and trusts adults and is open to relationships.

As far as the child care at your gym goes, it's terrific that he is willing to be there, given that he doesn't seem to have a relationship with either the adults or kids there. It would be helpful if he could have one "special person" there to whom he could attach and on whom he could depend. If you can pick that person out with him, and foster that attachment, it would give your son a much more secure experience that could lead to him becoming more comfortable with the kids there as well. It is the job of the childcare workers to relate to all the kids. Just be aware that they will most likely need to keep him near them so they can also tend to other kids, which of course may be a bit too much for him. So don't expect him to relate all the time to his "special" day care worker, but hope that knowing that person is in the room will help him feel more secure.

Your son is lucky to have such a thoughtful, concerned and perceptive mom. Enjoy him!

Dr. Laura Markham

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