How to Encourage Independent Play
Babies and toddlers require A LOT of attention, so it’s easy to forget that they need some freedom and independence too. So let’s talk about ‘independent play’. A time that our children get to be fully engaged in their own play experiences without our interference (and a time that we parents get a little breather!).
While some babies and toddlers naturally gravitate towards independent play, others need a little encouragement. Since my toddler is one of those children who needs a supportive nudge, I will be sharing some tips on how to encourage independent play that have worked for us. I’ll also be addressing the benefits of independent play and what to do if your child is resisting independent play.
Why is Independent Play Important for Kids?
After reading up on the benefits of independent play for kids, I was motivated to start making it a part of my toddler’s daily routine.
Independent play gives kids a chance to develop a number of important skills. Pathways explains that it helps kids learn problem solving skills, build their self confidence, and develop their creativity and self-regulation skills. Rather than looking to mom and dad for all the answers or for entertainment, they are pushed to find these things for themselves. Plus, it gives them a little time to unwind on their own.
Learning to be independent is such a huge part of growing up. And if kids can learn to rely on their internal resources in a safe and fun environment at home, they will be so much better off as they get older and have to navigate life away from home.
How to Encourage Independent Play
Setting the scene for a successful independent play session is pretty simple and straightforward. It just requires a little bit of prep work.
1. Create a Safe and Stimulating Play Environment
Create a designated play area that is safe, functional and stimulating for your child.
Even though I usually stay within eyesight of my toddler during independent play, I still like to make sure there isn’t anything he can accidentally hurt himself with in his play area. This way I don’t have to worry and I don’t need to interrupt him during his play.
I also like to make sure he has enough space to move around and freely explore his toys.
My toddler usually plays independently at the dining room table or on the living room. If he is at the table, I remove everything from the surface except for the objects and toys he is going to play with. He usually plays with play-dough and other sensory objects at the table.
And if he is in the living room, the only things that are out are his books, puzzles, toy cars and stacking objects. The living room tends to be a better choice if he needs to move his body. The table is a good option though, if we are trying to harness in some of his energy and settle down, since it provides a nice contained surface.
2. Don’t Interfere or Distract
This is pretty basic, but it can be surprisingly difficult to just leave your child alone sometimes. Especially if they are being extra cute during their independent playtime.
I’ve noticed that I’m so used to making comments about what my toddler is doing or asking him questions throughout the day, that I have to catch myself sometimes when he is playing independently. For the most part though, it’s easy to just let him be and enjoy those moments where I get to operate independently too!
3. Be Close By but Busy with Your Own Activity
PBS recommends staying close by during independent play, because it allows children to visually check in with you. This can help them feel secure and settled during their independent playtime. And this way, they are free to focus on their play tasks.
So I usually use the time my toddler is playing independently to catch up on some dishes or laundry. Or I sit quietly in the corner with my computer and do a little work. I am far enough away that we each have our own space, but close enough that he knows I’m readily available.
4. Have a Special Independent Play Bin, Basket or Tray
Bringing out a special bin, basket or tray signals to a child that it is time to transition to independent play. And because this bin or basket only comes out during independent playtime, it adds an element of specialness and excitement.
For example, I often set my toddler up with a small bin of toy cars and some cardboard ramps or stacking objects. I also often bring out a tray that has playdough and small stamping tools and toys on it for independent playtime. (You can check out my DIY Playdough Recipe post to make your own playdough. For kids who are prone to sticking things in their mouths, playdough is of course best used for supervised play).
Whatever types of toys you provide, just make sure they are versatile. This will stimulate your child’s creativity and problem solving skills.
For example, blocks or tupperware can be stacked in infinite ways. Playdough can turn into anything. Balls can bounce in all directions. Anything that your child can manipulate and explore in different ways is a good independent playtime toy.
5. Make Independent Play a Part of the Daily Routine
When independent play becomes a part of kids’ daily routines, they know to expect it and they get more comfortable with it. And as they get more practice with independent play, they continue to develop their self-regulation, creativity and self-reliance skills. And this allows them to then move into more complex types of play.
There is so much to be said for consistency and routine when it comes to kids. It provides them with the structure they need in order to hone their skills and independence.
Troubleshooting Tips For When Your Child Does Not Want to Play Independently
Even when we perfectly set the scene for independent play session, it doesn’t mean things will always go according to plan.
For example, there are some days where my toddler only wants to follow me around. On these days that he is resisting independent play, I take a step back and ask myself a few questions.
1. Is My Child Tired, Hungry or Unwell?
The first question I ask is if there is anything distracting my child. Is he hungry? Is he feeling sick or otherwise unwell? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, I address that issue before continuing to push independent play.
If kids are using higher cognitive functions 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 those more complex 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 having a bowel movement though later that afternoon, his tone completely shifted. He was then able to sit and play with playdough and miniature toy horses for about 45 minutes as I did dishes and cleaned the kitchen.
2. Are Independent Playtime Toys Developmentally Appropriate and Stimulating?
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 tools and toys that match his current stage of development during independent play?
For example, my toddler is fascinated with wheels right now and spinning things. So anything I offer him that rolls or spins is engaging to 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 appropriate for your child’s age. Just observe them when they are playing with things and see what they start to explore. I learned about my child’s fascination with wheels and spinning objects by watching him push his stroller around in circles at every opportunity and drive toy cars everywhere around the house.
You have probably noticed your toddler repeating certain things over and over and over. When they do this, they are learning about “schemas”. They are learning how things work so that they can apply the concepts later. So keep an eye out for schemas your toddler may be interested in, and then find toys that help them continue to explore their schema of choice.
3. Is My Child Getting Enough Connection Outside of Independent Playtime?
As parents, we are our children’s secure base. And if they feel that their secure base is unavailable or may become unpredictably unavailable, they can get very clingy. So how do we make sure our kids are getting enough connection so that they are ready for independent playtime?
We can do this by being fully present when we are playing with them and doing daily tasks together. We can do things like read books together, play together and eat together. We put our phones aside and we just be with them.
Even when I think I’m getting away with doing something on the sly, my toddler somehow always knows I’m distracted. And he starts to get frustrated and more demanding of my attention. If I just set my tasks aside though and give him my full attention, I know I can get those tasks done later when he is ready for independent play.