Most parents of toddlers wish their little one could entertain himself. It seems only reasonable. Most toddlers can hold toys, flip board-book pages, and amble after balls. They've learned that they can do things on their own, and they often insist on it. Still, 1-year-olds prefer to orbit around their parents, which works against solo play -- the ability to entertain oneself.
"Toddlers don't magically play by themselves for extended periods," says Jane Foy, M.D., a pediatrician at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Though 15 minutes is about the longest you can expect a 1-year-old to play alone, giving her opportunities to do so is worth the effort -- and not just because you need to fix dinner. Solo play encourages independence, self-confidence, creativity, and language skills, says Maria Luisa Escolar, M.D., a developmental pediatrician at the University of North Carolina's Center for the Study of Development and Learning, in Chapel Hill. "You often see 15-month-old children jabbering to themselves as they play alone," Dr. Escolar says. "Such emerging symbolic play is basic to linguistic-skill development."
A child's ability to play independently depends on his temperament, Dr. Escolar says, and he'll have a harder time if he's hungry, tired, or sick. You also can't count on an older toddler's playing alone for longer periods than a younger one. A 22-month-old child has more developed cognitive and language abilities, but his desire for independence is also increasing, Dr. Foy says, so he's more likely to test limits and require close supervision and attention.