Teaching Children to Play Independently

Teaching your children to play independently is key to contentment (for ALL parties). Encouraging independence early on in childhood is a consistent practice that isn’t always easy, but rewarding on many levels.

Some of the many benefits of independent play:

  • Stimulates creativity
  • Boosts self confidence and self-esteem
  • Nurtures imagination
  • Provides opportunities to self soothe
  • Fosters problem solving skills
  • Encourages self awareness
  • Develops social independence
  • Gives you free time

Are you sold?

Teaching Children to Play Independently

Teaching Children to Play Independently

Here are some encouraging tips (tried and true by me and many mom friends) to get your child comfortable playing independently on their own.

Start Early.

It is never too early to start encouraging independent play time. The easiest way to begin is to ease off while you’re playing together. Watch and respond to play, but facilitate self-directed play by not interrupting.

Then, create a physical boundary by setting your child on a blanket or activity mat. Give them an engaging toy (or two) to play with. (Check out these lists of age appropriate passive toys by Kate at House Mix.) Stay with your child and engage with them while keeping them on the blanket throughout this playtime. The point is to get them comfortable recognizing a boundary.

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Create Boundaries and Communicate Expectations.

Regardless of their age, communication is key. By now you’ve spent a couple weeks getting them comfortable with blanket time. Now, explain to them that you have something to get done and they need to play by themselves for a few minutes. Communicating your intention rather than sneaking away while they aren’t looking, builds trust. They want to know that you will return when you say you will. 

Start gradually with a few minutes at a time and add more time every other day or so. Don’t expect them to play independently for 15 minutes at once. You’ll build to that soon enough. Be mindful that we are literally taking baby steps toward greater independence. You are teaching your child to respect boundaries and structure.

Have an Assortment of Activities Readily Available.

Offer developmentally appropriate toys and activities for your child to explore. Rotate your toys by putting them away for awhile and then reintroducing them. It’s a simple way to encourage your little one to play with it for an extended amount of time. Also, give your child the opportunity to choose a few of their favorites. (Some of my girls’ favorites were kitchen utensils: tupperware, pots and pans and plastic spoons.) 

It’s sometimes helpful to change their setting also. Whether they’re on a blanket, an activity mat, or in a pack and play, move it around for a change of scenery. It’s also ok for your child to get bored. 

Set a Timer.

Step away during that time, staying nearby. Be sure to return when you say you will. This builds confidence in your little one, reinforcing that you’ll be back soon and their needs are not being unmet. The use of a timer will serve you well for all ages. Kids thrive on structure, and you are helping them develop skills that they’ll use for a lifetime.

Encourage Autonomy and Empower Your Children to Play Independently.

As your child becomes more independent, let them direct their own activities. Encourage and give them the opportunity to solve problems before running straight to you for the solution. Don’t rush to accommodate their requests and solve their dilemmas. Giving them the freedom to problem solve cultivates a sense of trust in your child’s competency.

Remember, it takes time and practice to cultivate independence. You are empowering your child to develop the competence for independent play. Ultimately, you’ll benefit from more time each day to complete what needs to be done – all while nurturing skills that will serve your child for a lifetime.

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