Updated: Aug 16, 2020
A complete guide on encouraging independent play for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers.
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If you’re like most parents, you’re often stuck between the constant “Play with me!” pleads and the need to get things done. I read a quote the other day that I totally connected with:
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“A toddler believes that if you love a person, you stay with that person 100% of the time.” - Lawrence Balter
That Mom guilt is real (especially during a pandemic where the only place to escape alone is the bathroom- and even that's not a guarantee). We often feel like we need to constantly entertain our child for them to stay happy or be intelligent and we forget that play comes naturally to children.
What is independent play?
Independent play is where your child plays in a safe area alone for a period of time. This can take place in a play yard, in their bedroom, in a playroom, or the middle of the kitchen. The amount of time your child plays independently depends on their age, personality, and your family dynamics. During independent play you’ll offer, or your child will choose, toys or materials they can explore on their own. Besides fostering independence, independent play encourages problem solving, creativity, self-confidence, and risk taking. It is also a lifelong skill for your child to be able to occupy themselves without the help of others or a screen.
When can my child start playing independently?
It’s never too early! We often forget that everything is new and exciting to our child. Learning to play independently is a skill kids begin to develop very early on (think of your infant in their crib making little dinosaur-like babbles- they’re beginning to learn to play alone). At around 12-15 months, toddlers will begin to explore more complex activities allowing them to play for longer periods of time. Closer to the preschool years, you might notice your child wander off and do some pretend play independently.
How do I introduce independent play?
There are two main methods to encourage independent play (you might choose one or the other or do a combination of both methods):
Structured- In this method, your child plays independently at the same time in the same place (choose a room that’s been completely childproofed) every day. After deciding on the location, provide or allow your child to choose a few toys or activities that your child can do on their own. Set a timer, typically beginning with 5 minutes or less, and gradually increase the amount of time. This method might eventually take place of a nap time.
Gradual- In this method, you will gradually interfere less and less with each play session. Begin by silently sitting beside your child as they play instead of joining in or directing their play. Once they’re focused on their play, move to another part of the room while still in sight. Gradually increase the distance away as your child becomes more comfortable. This method might occur naturally throughout the day.
"Kids don't need us to teach or show them how to do it (or do it for them while they watch). They do need us to provide a reasonably enriching, welcoming, and safe environment and keep distractions (like us) at bay." - Janet Lansbury
Practical ways to foster independent play:
Make time for play a big part of your daily routine- Consider a daily "work time" where everyone is working on something independently (this can eventually replace a "nap time" when you child is no longer napping). It will likely start out small, just a few minutes at a time, but remember the typical toddler's attention span is only 5-8 minutes.
Make the transition to playtime slow and gradual- Avoid sneaking away (no one likes to feel like they're being set aside for something more important). Spend time hanging out with your child, provide them some attention, tell them where you're going and when you'll be back.
Be a passive observer- This is the key to fostering independent play. Instead of interfering with your child's play, act as a sportscaster, "You pushed that ball and it rolled away." This allow relates to the importance of respecting play. When you notice your child playing independently, avoid interrupting them. Children are easily distracted and the more we interrupt their play, the less value is placed on playing independently. I'll often provide an option, “I need to change your diaper, we can do it now or wait for minutes.” or “When you’re finished reading that book, come over to the table for lunch.”
Boredom is healthy- What appears to be boredom is usually a healthy pause before a new idea to experiment comes to mind. If separation is hard for your child, create small goals for independent play and offer choices after acknowledging their feelings, “I can see you’re upset because you want me to keep playing with you. Would you like to help me fold the laundry or will you play in your room?”
Set up the play space with intention- Offer developmentally appropriate materials to explore. When it comes to physical objects, less is more. Rotate toys as needed to offer about 9-12 play options at a time. This helps children get deeper into play and boosts attention span as their play becomes more meaningful. Keep the play space in an area nearby to where you typically spend the most amount of time.
Set up stations- Your child's attention span is typically 2 minutes per year of age. Set up simple, open-ended stations for your child to rotate between on their own. Sensory play often lasts the longest, but is often messier and might require extra supervision.
Encourage pretend play- Many parents find participating in pretend play difficult, but the more pretend play is reinforced, the more you'll see this type of play shine during independent play.
If you liked this post, don't miss: How to Offer Meaningful Choices
How long should I expect my child to play independently for? This is determined by your child's age and developmental stage. As your child grows, their attention span will increase. For example, at 6 months, a child may be content by themselves for 2-5 minutes. At 2 years, a child might be content by themselves for 30 minutes. There isn't a "right" or "wrong" amount of time, celebrate any victory!
How do you foster a healthy relationship and encourage independent play when your child wants to do everything with you? You're your child's absolute favorite person in this world. Of course they want to spend all day with you but they also want and need independence. While it's important to foster independent play, it's also important to spend quality time with your little one. Dedicate 15 minutes a day to spend one-on-one time with your child doing what they want to do. You'll likely find that when you make an effort to "fill your child's cup" early in the day, they'll feel confident to play independently naturally.
How do you encourage independent play for a child who just wont? Try new ways to present independent play- it might not always look like a child sitting in a room quietly playing. Create exciting invitations to play to catch your child's attention. Does your child love cars? Attach a cardboard ramp to a chair with a pile of cars nearby. Sit nearby while they explore and act as a facilitator without directing their play.
What age can a child play independently? The earlier you can practice independent play, the better. If your baby wakes in their crib and is happily babbling away, don't rush to get them up. It's okay (and a great idea) to let them hang out for a bit. When your child is around 5 months old (able to hold their head up and manipulate a toy on their own), try setting up a safe "yes" space they can explore on their own. This might be an area gated off or even a play yard.
What safe activities can my child do during independent play? This, of course, depends on your child's development. The general rule is to try sticking to open-ended play invitations. A basket of blocks, a bin of paper scraps and a pair of scissors, a container of loose parts, a small world, etc. Independent play might just look like your child playing with the toys on their play shelf too.
Is it considered independent play if I'm still sitting next to my child without interacting? In my opinion, yes! If I'm folding laundry on the floor and my preschooler is playing with her doll house next to me, I consider that independent play. Others, who believe more in strict and structured independent play (playing on their own in the same time and the same play everyday) might not consider this independent play.
My child wants me to play with him constantly, but will play independently when I'm not around. how can I help this situation? Again, you're they're favorite! Take this clinginess as a compliment. In our house, we play the game of 15's to help with this issue. Together we'll play for 15 minutes and then I'll do some work on my own for 15 minutes. My daughter can choose to play on her own, help me (if it's an option), or wait until I'm finished. Then we'll repeat.
Is it necessary to have a set time for independent play or can it just happen randomly throughout the day? Either or both! You'll need to choose what's best for your family. In my family right now (this will likely change), independent play happens more naturally throughout the day. Once E is no longer napping, some structured independent quiet time will take the place of her nap.