British Journal of Developmental Psychology (2018), 36, 501–507
©2018 The British Psychological Society
Young children’s preference for solitary play:
Implications for socio-emotional and school
Laura L. Ooi
*, Danielle Baldwin
, Robert J. Coplan
Department of Psychology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Department of Psychology, Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada
The purpose of this study was to provide additional psychometric support for the
Preference for Solitary Play Interview (PSPI) and to examine the associations between
self-reported preference for solitary play and indices of adjustment in early childhood.
Participants were N=340 children attending kindergarten and grade 1. Children
completed the PSPI, and teachers provided assessments of children’s socio-emotional and
school adjustment. In support of the validity of the PSPI, preference for solitary play was
positively associated with asocial behaviours. Further, preference for solitary play
displayed an indirect (but not direct) association with peer exclusion via asocial
behaviours. Findings are discussed in terms of the social and behavioural implications of
preference for solitary play in early childhood.
Statement of contribution
What is already known on this subject?
Children who spend more time alone are at increased risk of adjustment difﬁculties.
However, some individuals desire to spend time alone because of an appreciation for solitude.
Apreference for solitude is not associated with negative adjustment in adults and older youth.
What does this study add?
This study is among the ﬁrst to examine self-reported preference for solitary in early childhood.
Preference for solitude may not be related to emotional or school difﬁculties in young children.
However, a heightened display of solitary behaviours may still evoke negative responses from peers.
Children who spend comparatively more time alone are often considered to be at
increased risk for a host of social, emotional, and school difﬁculties (Rubin, Coplan, &
Bowker, 2009). However, not all withdrawn children display maladjustment (Coplan &
Weeks, 2010), underscoring the importance of considering why children spend more
time alone. Burger (1995) described the preference for solitude (PFS) as a desire to
spend time alone because of an appreciation for solitude, as opposed to an avoidance of
social interactions. Among adults, such an autonomous PFS is not generally associated
with negative indices of subjective well-being (Chua & Koestner, 2008). In
*Correspondence should be addressed to Laura L. Ooi, Department of Psychology, Carleton University, 1125 Colonel By Drive,
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, K1S 5B6 (email: email@example.com).
adolescence, characteristics akin to a non-fearful PFS (e.g., unsociability, afﬁnity for
aloneness) are also largely unrelated to socio-emotional difﬁculties (Goossens, 2014). In
middle childhood, parental ratings of unsociability predict socially withdrawn
behaviours, but are not concurrently related to internalizing problems or other school
difﬁculties (Coplan & Weeks, 2010). Together, these ﬁndings suggest that children who
spend more time alone due to a PFS may not necessarily be at risk for emotional or
Notwithstanding, children who prefer to play alone may still elicit negative peer
responses (e.g., exclusion), perhaps because they are viewed as undesirable playmates
due to their reduced prosocial behaviours (e.g., social initiations) and heightened solitary
play (Coplan, Prakash, O’Neil, & Armer, 2004). Indeed, in a sample of 9- to 12-year-old
children, Coplan et al. (2013) reported that the link between PFS and peer difﬁculties was
mediated by socially withdrawn behaviours. However, this conceptual mechanism has
yet to be tested in early childhood, in part because of the lack of age-appropriate
assessments of young children’s social preferences.
Asking others to infer children’s internal social motivations may be problematic. Yet,
few studies have explored self-reported preferences for solitary play in early childhood.
The use of age-appropriate methodological protocols (e.g., one-on-one interviews, visual
aids, simpliﬁed content) can assist young children in expressing their internal thoughts
and characteristics (e.g., Harter & Pike, 1984). Applying these techniques, Coplan, Ooi,
Rose-Krasnor, and Nocita (2014) developed the Preference for Solitary Play Interview
(PSPI) and provided initial evidence to suggest that 3- to 7-year-old children are capable of
reliably (a=.71) reporting their preferences for solitary play. As expected, preference for
solitary play displayed signiﬁcant (albeit modest) positive associations with time alone
(i.e., social withdrawal), as well as negative relations with prosocial behaviours and
perceived peer acceptance.
In this study, we sought to provide additional evidence for the validity of the PSPI and
to further explore the concomitants of self-reported preference for solitary play in early
childhood. Consistent with adolescents and older children, preference for solitary play
was not expected to be associated with behavioural (internalizing, externalizing) or
school (academic competence, teacher attention) difﬁculties. However, it was predicted
that preference for solitary play would be positively associated with asocial behaviours
and peer problems, and negatively related to prosocial behaviours (Coplan et al., 2014). It
was further speculated that socially withdrawn behaviours would account for (i.e.,
mediate) the association between preference for solitary play and peer exclusion. Finally,
it was expected that PFS would be more strongly associated with adjustment difﬁculties
among boys as compared to girls because it violates male gender norms (e.g., social
assertion) (Coplan et al., 2013).
Ethics approval was obtained from university research ethics boards and participating
school boards, and parental consent was obtained for all participating children.
Participants were N=340 4- to 7-year-olds (173 boys; M
=68.54 months, SD =10.67)
attending kindergarten and grade one in 10 public schools in Ontario, Canada. Collection
of socio-economic status and child ethnicity was not permitted by the participating school
boards. However, approximately 6% of parents had not attended high school, 24% had
502 Laura L. Ooi et al.
completed high school, 64% had completed college or university, and 6% had graduate
training. Based on census data of the geographic area where data collection took place, the
current sample was drawn from a medium-to-high median income population (Statistics
Canada, 2017). The population from which the sample was drawn consists primarily of
Canadians of European descent (approximately 75%), with numerous visible minorities
also represented, including Black (~6%), Chinese (4%), South Asian (~4%), and Arab
Canadians (4%) (Statistics Canada, 2013).
Children completed the PSPI (Coplan et al., 2014) during individual interviews. Children
were shown 11 black-and-white cartoon images (in random order) depicting a structural
range of traditionally solitary (e.g., drawing) and group (e.g., board games) activities,
including constructive (e.g., blocks), sensorimotor (e.g., slide), and dramatic (e.g., dress-
up) play. People are not depicted in the activit y images. Children were asked whether they
would want to play each activity ‘alone’ or ‘with another child’ (alternating response
options) by pointing to a cartoon drawing of either one child or two sex-neutral children.
The measure demonstrated acceptable internal reliability (a=.66). PFS was computed as
the proportion of times a child indicated they would want to play alone, with higher values
reﬂecting a greater preference for solitary play.
Teachers completed items from the Child Behavior Scale (Ladd & Proﬁlet, 1996)
assessing asocial (i.e., withdrawn, six items), prosocial (seven items), aggressive (seven
items), anxious behaviours with peers (four items), and peer exclusion (seven items) on a
3-point scale (as=.78–.92). To assess children’s school adjustment, teachers also
reported on children’s academic competence (Coplan, Gavinski-Moli na, Lagac
Wichmann, 2001) by rating (on a 5-point scale) their performance on various academic
skills (e.g., language, math, reasoning) (nine items, a=.94), as well as how much teacher
attention (Coplan & Armer, 2005) each child required (two items, ‘special attention’,
‘extra help/assistance’, r=.91, p<.001).
Due to a labour dispute at the time of data collection, teacher ratings were missing for
48.5% of participants. Full information maximum likelihood in Mplus 7.4 (Muth
en, 1998–2015) was used to handle missing data, as it yields unbiased parameter
estimates and standard errors (Dong & Peng, 2013).
Preference for solitude was not signiﬁcantly correlated with child age (r=.06, p=.26)
or parental education (r=.06, p=.27) and did not differ by child sex, t(290.99) =.27,
p=.79. Intraclass correlations for all study variables were low (.00–.05), indicating little
to no variance due to school grouping. Descriptive statistics and zero-order correlations
for all study variables are displayed in Table 1. PFS was signiﬁcantly and positively
associated with asocial behaviours and peer exclusion, but not signiﬁcantly related to
other indices of maladjustment. Fisher r-to-ztransformations indicated signiﬁcant
differences across child sex in the associations between PFS and teacher attention
(z=4.33, p<.001; r
=.39, p<.001; r
=.07, p=.58), and prosocial
behaviours (z=1.99, p=.05; r
=.04, p=.70; r
A mediation model (n=335) was tested using maximum likelihood estimation
(Figure 1). PFS was signiﬁcantly and positively associated with asocial behaviour, which
in turn was signiﬁcantly and positively associated with peer exclusion. Moreover, PFS
Preference for solitary play 503
Table 1. Descriptive statistics and correlations for all study variables (N=340)
1. Preference for Solitary Play
2. Aggressive .04 –
3. Academic competence .00 .12 –
4. Teacher attention .12 .20* .30*** –
5. Anxious .13 .18* .16* .29*** –
6. Prosocial .08 .51*** .36*** .25** .16* –
7. Asocial .17* .22** .11 .31*** .39*** .25*** –
8. Peer exclusion .20* .54*** .23** .32*** .34*** .40*** .56*** –
M0.29 1.25 3.23 2.53 1.32 2.22 1.21 1.15
SD 0.21 0.38 0.76 1.12 0.41 0.51 0.35 0.32
Min/Max 0.00–1.00 1.00–3.00 1.44–4.89 1.00–5.00 1.00–3.00 1.00–3.00 1.00–2.83 1.00–2.71
Note.***p<.001; **p<.01; *p<.05.
504 Laura L. Ooi et al.
demonstrated a signiﬁcant indirect (but not direct) effect on peer exclusion via asocial
=.09, SE =.04, p=.04). Results from a series of Wald chi-square tests of
parameter equalities (using Bonferroni family-wise error correction) indicated no
signiﬁcant sex differences in the model (v
s=0.00–1.17, dfs=1, ps=.28–.99).
As support for the validity of the PSPI, responses were signiﬁcantly and positively
associated with teacher-rated asocial behaviours. Aside from a correlation with peer
exclusion, PFS was not signiﬁcantly associated with any other teacher-rated outcomes
(including prosocial behaviours). Although we should be cautiou s about over-interpreting
such ﬁndings, this pattern of results is consistent with previous studies of older children,
adolescents, and adults, suggesting that a PFS in early childhood may not be directly
associated with socio-emotional and academic difﬁculties. Contrary to expectations, few
sex differences emerged in the current ﬁndings, suggesting that additional examination of
the implications of PFS across sex is needed in early childhood.
Consistent with ﬁndings among older children (Coplan et al., 2013), results from the
mediation analysis suggest that children who prefer to play alone may experience peer
difﬁculties due to their increased propensity to engage in withdrawn behaviours.
However, given the cross-sectional design of the current study, it is possible that children
report a greater PFS (and spend more time alone) in response to negative peer
experiences (Ren, Wesselmann, & Williams, 2016). Thus, longitudinal research (which
includes additional potential intermediary factors) is needed to examine the complex
nature of these associations.
It also remains to be seen whether heightened preferences for solitude in early
childhood have later implications for adjustment. For example, Wang, Rubin, Laursen,
Booth-LaForce, and Rose-Krasnor (2013) found that PFS was associated with various
indices of socio-emotional maladjustment in a sample of adolescents. However, their
broad measure of PFS also likely assessed an active avoidance of social interactions,
which may carry greater risk of adjustment difﬁculties (Coplan et al., 2013). In this
regard, it would be of value for future researchers to further delineate the underlying
motivations of young children’s preferences for solitary play by asking them why they
want to play alone. Notwithstanding, the current ﬁndings provide an important step
towards advancing our knowledge of what it means to spend time alone in early
Figure 1. Standardized path coefﬁcients depicting direct paths between preference for solitary play,
asocial behaviours, and peer exclusion. The indirect path coefﬁcient is not shown. Note: ***p<.001;
Preference for solitary play 505
This research was supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of
Canada grant (435-2012-1173) to authors Coplan and Rose-Krasnor. The authors wish to
thank Kristen Archbell, Mandana Armer, Alexa Baird, Alicia Bartlett, Julie Dick, Katie
Dubeau, Sarah Gardiner, Narges Khazraei, Alison Kirkpatrick, Gabriella Nocita, Jessica
Paul, Noelle Strickland, and Emily Thomas for their help in the collection and coding of
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