Play, Social Language, Toddler

Tips for Getting Toddlers to Play Together

Using where they’re at to set realistic expectations in play

Children show their first signs of social interactions with a social smile at about 4 weeks old. However, it’s not until age 2 that your child will begin to truly play with peers their same age, not just their caregivers (Scott, 2020). Prior to 2 children are learning to play with the objects themselves is a series of stages (read more about the stages of play with objects HERE).

Solitary Play

This stage starts while they are still infants and continues into toddler age. It is when your child participates in independent play with no outside interaction. They may be in a room full of other children but are focused on their task only and are unaware of the other children. Independent play is an important skill for children to have- unless you want to be their circus leader all day every day!

Ways to Support During This Stage:

  • Bring other children in eye sight of the child participating in isolated play. Occasionally point out the children playing and see if they ask questions/make comments.
  • Use Cause Effect toys and toys that promote pretend play later on (blocks may start out as stacking but later on can be pretend for building a road, making a city, etc.)
  • Give language to the emotions they experience while working on their tasks

Parallel Play

Around the time your child turns 2- 2 1/2 years old you may notice a subtle shift in the way they begin interacting with peers. Instead of isolated play they may choose to sit near a peer to play with a similar object. They are playing NEXT TO/BY each other, not with each other during this stage. This is the first stage when children recognize and want to be with other children! 

Ways to Support During This Stage:

  • Make sure there are several of the same/similar toy
  • Use toys that stimulate their imaginations or allow them to build and create (play doh, sensory tables/boxes, blocks, paint)
  • Play games like Simon Says- the children don’t have to interact but are both participating in a joint activity

Associative Play

By the age of 3 to 4 your child will begin to make the next shift in their ability to play with peers. You will notice that instead of all interest being on the toys they become more interested in the other children. They begin talking about what they are making, borrowing toys, and taking turns. But children continue to act alone and there is no set rules or organization to the play.

Ways to Support During This Stage:

  • Teach your child how to ask for toys with peers. Verbally model for the and praise when they use words over grabbing.
  • When at home model appropriate turn-taking. Directly teach words like “my turn”, “your turn” or “you go”, “I go”
  • Provide toys and activities that encourage problem solving and make-believe

Cooperative Play

Between the age of 4 and 5 your child should enter the final stage of play- cooperative/collaborative/social play. They begin to share ideas and toys, and follow established rules and guidelines. Once a child enters this stage they are able to be a part of larger group with the unified goal of making something (e.g. a city out of blocks, buildings, and people), acting out situations (e.g., pretend school), or playing formal games (e.g. Duck, Duck, Goose).

Ways to Support During This Stage:

  • Begin working on good sportsmanship- encourage children to say “good game” or shake hands/give high fives no matter the outcome.
  • Make rules clear- Using visuals to support your basic rules makes the expectations concrete and easier to understand, especially when a child is upset.
  • Recognize feelings- practice strategies at home for when your child is upset, mad, etc. so that when they are with their peers they will be able to begin recognizing those emotions and know how to help themselves.
  • Use choices to practice negotiation

Enjoy watching your child progress through the different stages of play. Play is such an important time for children to practice turn taking, problem solving, cooperating, negotiating, and communicating. I’ve made a checklist to help you identify the different stages your child is in- you can access that HERE!

Red Flags in Play

  • Doesn’t know how to play appropriately with toys- I child needs to understand how to play with objects before they can join in play using that object with a peer. This may look like throwing objects, lining them up, etc.
  • Child is not making eye contact with you
  • Child doesn’t consistently respond to their name
  • Your child doesn’t attempt to talk with peers, even when prompted. Child appears to be unaware of others around them and does not join in play.
  • After age 3 your child has difficulty following another persons plan or changing their plan to allow others to join in play.



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