How to Encourage Independent Play: 15 Actionable Tips!

How to Encourage Independent Play: 15 Actionable Tips!

My son loves playing… with people, namely mom and dad. He is constantly begging to play cars, hide and seek, tag, and the myriad of other games he comes up with. While I love that he is so enthusiastic about playing, I do not always want to play games with him. 

I love him dearly, but a mama can only play so much cars before she loses her mind. I also would love for him to develop the skills that come with not just interactive play, but independent play. So how to encourage independent play?

Independent play is a type of play where children are engaged in their own play experiences without parents’ interference (and a time when busy parents can get a little breather!).

Learning how to play independently helps young kids develop many important skills that they carry with them into adulthood. These include skills such as;

  • creative thinking
  • problem-solving
  • self-reliance
  • self-confidence

Rather than looking to someone else or to screen time for entertainment, kids are pushed to connect with their own blossoming internal resources during independent play.

15 Tips to Encourage Independent Play 

While some young children naturally gravitate towards independent play, others need some encouragement. For those who need that extra nudge, here are 15 strategies parents can use to help kids play independently. 

1. Create a Clutter-Free and Safe Play Space

A good play space does not have to be a big playroom with every toy in the universe. In fact, sometimes a small area helps kids focus on creative play more than a large overstimulating play area.

While we have a spacious playroom in our house, more often than not my son prefers to play independently at the kitchen counter or in small corners and nooks around our house.

baby and toddler playroom with books, mini trampoline and train tracks

So whenever it is time for some solo play and my son wants to get the playdough out or do some drawing, I clear the kitchen counter and set him up with his toys and tools. I also keep his favorite nooks and corners in the house clutter-free, so that if he wants to quietly play with his cars or various knick knacks there is nothing in his way. 

Keeping these spaces clear as much as possible also encourages him to spontaneously retreat to these areas for some independent play throughout the day as well.I also always make sure his play space is a safe area free of any hazards, so that I do not have to worry or interrupt him while he is playing by himself.  

Additionally, taking independent play outside is also a great option when kids need to move their bodies more and get some fresh air. Items from nature also make great imaginative play toys. 

2. Pre-Play Well Check

Before trying to get my son to play independently, the first thing I ask myself is if anything is distracting him or interfering with his ability to focus on his play.

  • Is he hungry? Does he need a snack?
  • Is he feeling sick or otherwise unwell?
  • Does he need to go to the bathroom?
  • Does he need a nap?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, I address that issue before trying to push independent play time. 

If kids are using higher cognitive and executive function during independent play, like problem-solving and self-regulation, they need to have their base needs around physical comfort and safety met first. Otherwise, they won’t be able to focus on any demanding tasks. 

For example, the other day my 2-year-old was having a rough morning (he was constipated and hadn’t slept well that night), and there was no way he was going to sit by himself and play. He was constantly crying for me to pick him up and was following me everywhere. 

After an early nap and finally going potty later that afternoon, his tone completely shifted. He was then able to sit and play with playdough and miniature toy horses at the table for about 45 minutes as I did dishes and cleaned the kitchen.

3. Connect Before and After Solo Play

As parents, we are our children’s secure base. And if they feel that their secure base is unavailable or only partially available, they can get very clingy. So how do we make sure our kids are getting enough connection so that they are ready for some solo play?

We can do this by being fully present with them, even if only for a short period of time on a daily basis. We can do things like read books together, play together, and eat together. We put our phones aside and we give them our full attention. While it’s not always possible to give them all the time and attention they want, even 5 minutes of undivided attention is better than no attention or distracted attention.

Giving a few minutes of undivided attention right before and after independent play time can help kids feel more secure as they transition in and out of solo play. 

4. Offer Open-Ended Toys

Open ended toys are the best toys to keep kids creatively engaged. For example, kids can stack toys like blocks or even tupperware in infinite ways. They can turn playdough into anything. They can bounce and roll balls in all directions. Anything they can manipulate and explore in different ways is a good toy for independent unstructured play time.

5. Offer Interesting and Developmentally Appropriate Toys

If my son is well rested, fed and otherwise feeling fine, but is still having trouble settling into independent play, I ask an additional question. Am I offering him toys that match his current stage of development? 

For example, my toddler is fascinated with wheels right now. So anything I offer him that rolls or spins is a stimulating activity for him. If I offer him stuffed animals on the other hand, he has zero interest and goes looking for something else.

You do not have to know much about child development to figure out what kinds of toys are age-appropriate for a child. Just observe them and look out for those objects that they are curious about. I learned about my child’s fascination with wheels by watching him push his stroller around in circles and obsessively driving his favorite toy cars around the house.

6. Offer Novel Toys

It’s easy to throw a bunch of old toys at our kids and hope that they will keep them entertained. Sometimes as busy parents we just don’t have the energy to offer anything else. The great thing though, is that finding new toys doesn’t have to take a ton of effort.

Novel toys can be things like cardboard boxes and empty cartons from the recycle bin. Kids make amazing games and toys out of simple everyday objects. In fact, two of my son’s favorite things include feathers from our down couch cushions and leftover holiday balloons! As long as we offer our kids new materials every so often, they take the work on of figuring out what to do with them. 

7. Offer a Special Toy Box

Bringing out a special toy box visually signals to a child that it is time to transition to independent play. And because this bin or basket only comes out during independent play time, it adds an element of specialness and excitement. It’s also a good idea to have only a small number of toys in the box or bin to help kids stay focused.

8. Stay Close-by

PBS recommends staying close by during a child’s independent play time. This allows kids to visually check in with you and helps them feel secure and settled. And this way, they are free to focus on their play tasks.  

So I like to be far enough away that we each have our own space, but close enough that my child knows I’m readily available. I usually use the time my toddler is playing independently to check a couple of items off my chore to-do list.

9. Don’t Interfere or Distract

I’m used to interacting with my toddler so much throughout the day, that sometimes I have to catch myself and stop myself from making a comment or asking him a question when he is having his independent playtime.

And if my toddler tries to get me talking, I acknowledge him, but I keep it brief and redirect him back to his own tasks. 

10. Create a Daily Routine

Figuring out a time when you can regularly encourage some independent play time helps everyone stick with it. When independent play becomes a part of kids’ daily routines, they know to expect it and they get more comfortable with it. The power struggle around solo play time slowly dissipates, since it just becomes a normal part of the day. 

Good times to encourage independent play might be before dinner, after breakfast or after an outing. 

11. Go Over the Daily Schedule Together

Deciding on a daily routine is one thing, but implementing it and regularly sharing it with your kids is another. Kids thrive off of routine and knowing what to expect. So taking some time to verbally and visually go over a schedule for the day helps avoid resistance when it’s time to execute tasks. So at the start of the day, I always try to go over our plans with my son. I also remind him a couple of times throughout the day of our schedule and when he will have some time to play by himself. Young children have a lot going on in their minds and so oftentimes need lots of reminders.

I don’t use the term “independent play” when telling him what’s going to happen but rather explain what I’ll be doing while he can play with x, y or z. 

12. Be Assertive

Sometimes my child does not want to spend time alone and play by himself. Because I know that it’s good for him to have some independent play time though, and because I need a moment’s reprieve every now and then, I try to stick with a daily independent play session.

I clearly and calmly tell my son that I need to do some dishes for example, and that he can play by himself while I do that. And I just calmly repeat this and set him up with something to do close by me. Being an assertive parent takes some practice, but it has big benefits for everyone.

13. Remember the Benefits of Independent Play

When kids don’t want to play independently and you are tired of trying to make it happen, it can be helpful to remind yourself of the benefits of continuing to encourage an independent play practice. 

Sometimes all it takes is remembering our “why” to give us motivation to keep on keeping on. Parenting is a lot of hard work and sometimes we just need to remind ourselves that all the time and effort we are putting in is having a huge impact on our child’s development. 

So I remind myself of the new skills he is learning such as; problem-solving skills, creative thinking, self-reliance, self-regulation and learning to enjoy his own company. Plus there is the benefit of me getting a chance to catch my breath during the day!

14. Set a Timer

There are days when my child just doesn’t want to play by himself. This is when I bring out his little pink timer. I simply tell him that I’m setting it for 20 minutes. I tell him that I am going to do the dishes and that he can play while I do that.

Although he often protests for a few minutes, he will usually end up grabbing a toy car and follow me around with it. So, 20 minutes of independentish play isn’t a huge amount of time, but it’s better than nothing. It also reminds my toddler that this is a regular part of his routine, even on days he doesn’t like it. 

visual timer for independent play

Having a timer with a visual also helps kids feel like the time is manageable if they are having a hard time with solo play. 

15. Gradually Increase Independent Play Time

Starting with an hour of independent play time right off the bat is probably too ambitious for most kids. Adults don’t even have this kind of attention span. Starting with even 5 minutes and increasing time from there can be helpful.

Play is a Child’s Work

Helping young children (especially those who constantly want to play with mom or dad) build independent play skills requires time, consistency, and effort. But, like with most things, it is a gradual process.

Kids will get there at their own pace and we are just here to provide a little support along the way! Kids don’t need to be told how to play, they just need the right opportunities. And we can offer that by creating a safe space to play in, providing them with stimulating tools and toys, and sticking to a routine.

Easier said than done, but independent playtime for kids is ultimately a win for everyone and well worth the effort! 

Related Posts with Toy/Activity Ideas for Independent Play:

Homemade Playdough
Kinetic Sand Recipe
DIY Cardboard Toys
Painting with Structure

Creating a Toddler Friendly Home to Encourage Independence 

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