At the playground or on playdates, mother Jennifer Glass noticed that her daughter, Claire, then 11 months old, wouldn’t interact with other kids. “She just watched them and seemed amused by them,” says Glass. “I kind of thought it was her shy personality.”
Thankfully, it wasn’t long before another mom explained to Glass that this is exactly how babies this age are supposed to behave, shy or not. It’s all a part of learning to socialize.
“Babies will play with toys in the presence of other babies, but they are unable to coordinate their behaviour with other babies,” says Kiley Hamlin, an assistant professor of psychology at the university of British Columbia, who teaches courses on infancy and cognitive development.
This stage is called parallel play—because children play side-by-side instead of together—and it’s an age-appropriate precursor to more interactive play, which usually begins around age two.
What babies see
Before reaching that socialization milestone, children don’t understand the concept of taking turns, which is the key to collaborative play. “They can understand that ‘I’m playing with a toy and that baby is playing with a toy, too.’ But what they don’t get is this concept of ‘you take a turn, now I take a turn,’” says Hamlin.
This is why babies interact better with their parents than their peers. By using eye contact, tone of voice, hand gestures and other cues, adults are able to help babies know when it’s their turn to respond.
Follow the leader
Just because babies may appear to be ignoring each other doesn’t mean they aren’t checking each other out. Watch carefully and you may notice when one starts stacking blocks, for example, the other will try to follow suit. This type of mimicry is something Glass caught on video a while later, when Claire was two and her second daughter, Grace, was nine months. “Claire was dancing in the living room, and then all of a sudden Grace starts pulling out the moves in the corner on her own,” says Glass.
While parallel and imitative play can lay the groundwork for a child’s cooperative play later, it’s not something parents should fret about. “Certainly babies are going to get there on their own,” says Hamlin. “Just being in the presence of another kid is good practice for coordinated play. Babies may not be good at it yet, but that doesn’t mean they’re not learning.”
This article was originally published in April 2012.