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profile picture of Lisa Milbrand
Lisa Milbrand
Contributing Writer

How To Encourage Solitary Play

Quality time is important—but so is a sense of independence.

Most parents dream of the time when they can start playing with their baby—building blocks, playing house, tossing around a ball. But while quality time with you is key, independent play is also important to help your baby learn essential developmental skills. “Solitary play helps with being comfortable being alone, with personal self-expression without an audience or partner,” says Jephtha Tausig, PhD, a New York City-based clinical psychologist. “It balances the experiences children have with others.”

What Is Solitary Play?

Solitary play means playing alone. And it can start earlier than you think. “Babies can begin to engage in solitary play as soon as they are able to focus their eyesight,” says Donna M. Volpitta, EdD, founder of The Center for Resilient Leadership. “When we give babies something to engage with, they often employ ‘solitary play’ by watching and wondering for several minutes.”

But other experts point toward the 6 to 8-month mark as a big leap toward independent play. “Solitary play is best described when a child can sit up unaided and hold things,” says Julia Simens, MA, clinical psychology, author of Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child. “If a parent doesn't always interfere and push themselves into the child's playing field, it is possible to have a child self-engage and be content for a long time. This is important for future play exploration.”

Solitary play is actually the beginning of an infant’s path toward social development. “This is the first step to connections and interactions,” Simens says. “Play is like most things—you don't just learn to be a ‘great player’ without a lot of practice. Kids developmentally need solitary play. Then they move into parallel play where they play ‘in’ a group of kids but side-by-side instead of together. This is very common of children between the ages of 1 and 2 years old.”

Why Is Solitary Play Important?

Toddler independent play offers children valuable time to grow and develop in important ways. “Solitary play is often the best opportunity for children to develop higher level thinking brain pathways—problem solving, persistence, planning ahead, organizing and creativity,” Volpitta says. “Solitary play gives them time to wonder and think about their world. When they are constantly engaged in activities that are coached or guided, they do not have the opportunity to develop these skills.”

Volpitta says that a lack of time and focus on solitary play can have significant consequences for a child’s future. “Standford University Dean Julie Lythcott-Haims says that we are raising a generation of bonsai children,” Volpitta says. “Parents are pruning them constantly to look beautiful on paper, but, unfortunately, just like Bonsai trees cannot survive in the wilderness, Bonsai children cannot survive in the real world.” Independent play can help children learn how to thrive on their own, an essential skill for independence as they grow and mature.

How to Encourage Solitary Play

Give them the tools. Kids need developmentally appropriate toys that engage them. Skip the fancy, bells-and-whistles toys and give your kids simple ones like blocks—or even kid-safe household objects like pots and pans and cardboard boxes—that give them choices in how to use the objects in their play. For example, the pot can be a drum, or something you use to carry other toys around.
Sit back and relax. “Give your child the time to do it himself,” Simens says. “Parents may question the child with, ‘Do you want this or that?’ making choices for the child before he has time to engage by himself. They need to sit back and be quiet.”
Cut back on extracurriculars. All those classes may seem super beneficial, but it’s just as important to leave time for unstructured play. “Parents feel like they need to engage kids in lots of structured activities,” Volpitta says. “But what parents really need to do is let kids go to the playground or sit for a while with Legos.”
Understand what your child needs. “I think it’s important that we have a sense of who our children are as individuals,” Tausig says. “Some may gravitate more towards solitary play and may need some gentle encouragement to play and engage more with others. Other children may be the opposite and may need some more opportunities to play by themselves. We are all different in this regard.” Determine whether your child needs a little push towards playing with others or encouragement to entertain himself, and them help him develop in this way.

Published May 2018

PHOTO: Olivier Renck