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Toddlers: Social, Solitary and Parallel Play

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 does 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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Anonymous commented on 26-May-2009 03:08 PM
Dear Dr. Markham, thank you very much for your time and your thorough, thoughtful answer. My husband and I both really found it helpful and reassuring. It is wonderful that you are doing this online in addition to what I'm sure is a very busy practice. We were astounded that you described our son as "sensitive" from the info I gave you, since we read a book about sensitive kids, after seeing our son get overstimulated in some environments, and wondered if he was one, ourselves. Again, I'm very grateful for your email and your wisdom.

Kristine Misak commented on 13-May-2010 03:28 PM
Wow, my daughter is 17 months old and acts exactly the same as this mother mentioned. Daycare even commented on her this morning. I was worried that her being observant but non-interactive was a warning sign. You just made me feel worlds better. I appreciate your posting this :)
Anonymous commented on 25-Jan-2011 11:31 PM
Thank you so much for this post and answer. My son is at a new facility and he is doing the same thing. The assistant director said she was concerned of his parallel play. It is a sign of ADD and ADHD. Is this true? He has been acting out and will run around the room and just do what he wants. My husband and I run a pretty tight ship here. Are we being too strict, or is it just the age? My son is three and VERY smart. Could he be board at school or over stimulated? If he is overstimulated what can be done in the classroom setting to make him more comfortable. He even covers his ears because he says it is too noisy at times. HELP! Thanks
Anonymous commented on 31-Jan-2012 07:22 PM
Ditto to the above poster! Only I think my son's daycare are hinting at aspergers/asd. Something which I totally disagree with! Even though my gut feeling is that it's not asd I can't help questioning myself as daycare are convinced there's something 'wrong'.
(I'm not the most confident person) I think he's probably a Highly Sensitive Child but I need to get the book to find out more. Do HSC play alone and refuse to join in group singing/activities? He seems to shut himself off a little at daycare but is more open
and outgoing in smaller groups. He loves having friends over to our house to play, and is just beginning to play with them (not parallel to) Any advice/words of wisom would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!
Anonymous commented on 09-Feb-2012 10:13 AM
I am really pleased I have found this! I too have been worrying myself silly about my daughter thinking something is wrong, but this is very reassuring! My daughter is 22 months old, and she is not very 'social'. Since being a baby it has always taken
her a long time to 'warm up' in social situations,she has always been shy and cautious of others until she gets to know them. She is happier playing with me than with other children. We go to toddler group twice a week and she shows no interest in the other
children, she plays by herself, or sits with me and watches. She loves quiet activities such as books and puzzles, and she studies new play items in great detail, she does seem to get over stimulated if there is a lot of noise or kids running around, and plays
a lot better in a small quiet group! At home is when she seems to come alive, lots of interactions with mummy and daddy, lots of talking and babbling, likes going to see grandma and grandad etc. So Thankyou for this...I'm going to stop worrying and start enjoying
my child!

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