Category: Child Development

How to Encourage Independent Play

How to Encourage Independent Play

As a homeschooling family, one thing my girls are REALLY good at is playing independently. Over the last six years, they have learned to entertain themselves while I teach the other child. We’ve also spent many hours playing at our Classical Conversations community, my husband’s choir practice, and the girls’ gymnastics class. Some children are natural learners when it comes to independent play, while others need direct instruction and practice.

How to Encourage Independent Play | child development, independent play tips for kids, life skills, early childhood, parenting tips

When is my child ready for independent play?

I recently had a mom ask, “How early do you think kids are able to do this?”

The easy answer, of course, is that all children are different. I believe independent play is an important life skill that needs to be taught in early childhood and practiced over time until it becomes a way of life.

I would venture to say that some babies can learn to play independently for small amounts of time, maybe 5-10 minutes max. Our oldest daughter loved to look at herself in a mirror during tummy time, even if I was sitting right next to her!

Even our second baby, who much preferred being held or worn, would often have her independent play time in the kitchen while I prepared dinner. I would sit her in the high chair with a special toy and she was free to explore near me (but not exactly WITH me).

As our girls grew into toddlers and preschoolers, their time for independent play grew longer and more frequent. As a homeschooling family, each girl would have a turn for lessons while the other would listen to her personalized playlist and play in the other room.

There is a myth that all children need to be “entertained” all the time, and it’s just not true. As parents, it is important to build in time for independent play–not in a neglectful way, of course. (It should go without saying that parents and caregivers should ensure their children are safe and happy during independent play sessions.)


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4 Simple Ways to Encourage Independent Play

4 Ways to Encourage Independent Play

  • Environment

All too often, parents send their children “off to play” in a room filled with toys. Immediately, overwhelmed with choices and decision fatigue, children will make a mess or be destructive. The first and most important step for teaching kids to play independently is preparing the environment. You can either set up a toy rotation system or perhaps easier for this purpose, bring just one or two toys to an uncluttered play area, like a rug or blanket on the floor. If your child has a small table, you can also set up an independent play activity on it.

  • Equipment

I am a self-proclaimed lover of toys. There are some amazing learning products on the market these days! When it comes to teaching your child how to play independently, however, you are looking for a certain type of toy. You are looking for something open-ended, that can be played with in a variety of ways.

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Off the top of my head, I might consider Mental Blox or a train set to start. As your child becomes more adept at independent play, you can bring in the sensory bins or playdough invitations.  (You can click here to see the entire list of our 13 favorite indoor toys.)

  • Educate

As I mentioned in the introduction, some children are naturals when it comes to independent play. Others need to be taught (shown AND told) what it means to play independently. It may take a few weeks, but with good instructions, clear expectations, and lots of practice, you can set up good play habits that will last for years.

If you have a toddler or preschooler (or even an older child!), try this process:

  1. Explain that you are going to try a NEW activity! I think we first called it “room time,” but since we often switched from room to room, I started calling it “invitations to play.” (Now, our six-year-old just asks me to set up “an activity.”) Find a name that works for you both and signals something new and exciting.
  2. Show your child WHERE they are going to be doing the activity. As you lay out a blanket or set up a child-sized table, they will likely be intrigued without you doing too much. Remember to keep it fun–independent play is not a punishment.
  3. Bring out a toy (just one!) that they haven’t played with in a long time or something new you’ve picked up at a consignment store. Choose something they will WANT to play with at first (no screen time, of course). Make sure to keep it open-ended!
  4. Turn on music or an audiobook while your child plays. Stay close by, but don’t get involved in the play unless you want to. (Definitely don’t grab your phone/tablet, or your child will want what YOU have.)
  5. Mark down what time they start playing and when they lose interest/walk away. Hopefully you can get 5-10 minutes the first time! When they are done, ask them to clean up with you before they move on to another task.
  6. Repeat the process tomorrow. And the day after. Keep practicing until your child can stay focused on ONE activity for 30 minutes.

Remember that this should be FUN and light-hearted. If you are having any struggles at all, just reach out and we can troubleshoot together. 

  • Engage

If your child is struggling to play independently, the most likely problem (sorry to say) are the toys. We all know that kids gravitate towards the things that interest them, right? Start setting aside the toys your child no longer seems interested in playing with until you find the “sweet spot.” You can certainly try re-introducing the toy to your child at a later date to see if their interest has returned. (If not, you can resell that toy or donate it to charity.)

Another likely culprit is too much screentime. In our house, we definitely notice a negative effect on our children’s attitudes and attention spans when they’ve had unlimited freedom with either the TV or tablet. You may need to institute a “fast”or strong boundaries around screentime while your child is learning to play independently. We have found that audiobooks are a good substitute–low tech, but still engaging and fresh.

How to Encourage Independent Play | child development, independent play tips for kids, life skills, early childhood, parenting tips

YOUR TURN: How do you encourage independent play for your kids?


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Toy Rotation Tips for Kids

Toy Rotation Tips for Kids

A few years ago, one of my online friends remarked that our family must live in a toy store. If you follow us on Instagram, you might think that’s true! But what else would you expect from an early education advisor who believes in learning through play? It’s true that we have hundreds of toys in our collection, but since we did preschool at home with our kids, I consider each purchase an investment in my girls’ education. My friend was floored when I told her that our family of four (and all of our toys) resided in a very small, two-bedroom apartment. For five years, the only way to contain the kid clutter and maintain our sanity was our toy rotation system.

Toy Rotation Tips for Kids | learning through play, toy rotation ideas, parenting tips, weekly toy rotation, play spaces, toy rotation system

Toy Rotation Tips

  • Toy rotation for babies happens naturally as your little one develops new skills. You’ll find your baby outgrows toys at a pretty rapid rate–but don’t get rid of them too quickly! You may be able to use a “baby” toy differently down the road.
  • Rotating is most effective toys is most effective for families with toddlers and preschoolers. You reduce clutter and make play spaces more appealing with fewer toys available at a time. Bonus: your child learns how to tidy up without a lot of help from mom!
  • Setting up your toy rotation system might take a few days. Try not to mind the mess while you’re working–you will save so much time and stress down the road, I promise.
  • Children don’t need access to every one of their toys all at once. After a few weeks of toy rotation, you will see stronger attention spans, more creative play ideas, and increased confidence when it comes to cleaning up after play.

See our 13 recommended learning toys here!


Toy Rotation Tips for Kids | learning through play, toy rotation ideas, parenting tips, weekly toy rotation, play spaces, toy rotation system

Step by Step Process

  1. Set aside a day or two to complete this project.
  2. Purchase a few bins to store toys when not in use. I love the TROFAST boxes from IKEA because they stack nicely and help you contain the chaos. You’ll also want some quart-size and gallon-size zipper bags.
  3. Gather ALL of your child’s toys in one room. If you can do this without your child, great! If not, just be prepared for a big mess. Remind yourself it will be worth it in the end!
  4. Purge the toys your child has outgrown, the toys you can’t stand, and the toys that are broken/missing pieces.
  5. Sort your child’s toys into groups or categories. (See below.) You may find you have WAY TOO MANY of one type and see a category that is lacking. That’s okay. You’ll be more intentional when shopping for gifts in the future!
  6. Choose one toy from each category to start your toy rotation system. Arrange those toys in your designated play area. Everything else will go into toy storage.
  7. Decide which items you want to leave in their boxes and which toys can be fit into zipper bags. (I really only saved boxes for toys I thought I might want to resell in the future.)
  8. Organize your storage area and talk with your kids about the new toy rotation system. Decide how often you’ll want to switch out toys and if your kids will be involved in the choosing. (I was pretty flexible about letting my kids trade a toy for another in the same category during the week because it didn’t happen often.)

Toy Rotation Tips for Kids | learning through play, toy rotation ideas, parenting tips, weekly toy rotation, play spaces, toy rotation system

Toy Rotation Categories

Once you have gathered all of your child’s toys, it will be easier to choose categories that work for your family. Here are some ideas for you:

  • games & puzzles
  • building toys (blocks, LEGO, etc.)
  • transportation
  • fine motor/visual toys
  • imaginative activities (dress up clothes, play kitchen)
  • arts & crafts
  • educational toys

Note: some of your toys will fit into multiple categories. (THAT’S GOOD!)

When we first started toy rotation, I usually grabbed one toy from each category. As we got more comfortable with our system, I got much more flexible about mixing and matching. As you can see in the images, one of our favorite activities was the color bowl, a mish-mash of toys that had nothing in common except for their color. I was amazed by the creative ways that my girls started to play and how LONG they would stay engaged and focused on one activity.

Toy Rotation Storage

As I mentioned earlier, we lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment when our girls were younger. We had a HUGE closet in their room that I turned into a toy storage corner. The rule was that the girls couldn’t take their toys out of the closet without permission, and they were really good about it. (If they weren’t, I would have put the toys up high, moved them into MY closet, or found an alternate location.)

You can see in the image above, I had a bookshelf in the closet to hold all of the toys that were self-contained in boxes and containers. All other loose pieces were contained in zipper bags and shoved in the TROFAST boxes stacked in a tower. (Each category got its own box.)

I used a variety of baskets, bowls, and containers to display the “out” toys in the play area. I found great, inexpensive baskets at thrift shops and bought all the green plastic containers at Dollar Tree. Having small, open containers made it easy for the girls to:

  • see which toys were available
  • move toys around to different play areas in the apartment
  • clean up when play time was over

SMARTplay mini-class for parents!

Once you have all your toys organized, you may be wondering how to utilize them for SMART play.

What if we could build connection with our children through play while strengthening their critical and creative thinking skills?

Join Melissa Droegemueller, former classroom teacher, for this free mini-class that will help you unlock the power of play in your child’s life.

SMARTplay will teach you five things you need to know to make playing with your kids more effective and fun.

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Learning to Read is a Lot Like Potty-Training

Learning to Read is a Lot Like Potty-Training

Over the last year, I have realized how many childhood skills need to be taught directly and intentionally. Our kids need to learn from us how to appropriately handle money, relationships, and conflict before they become adults, right? It got me thinking about our early years of parenting, all the way back to potty-training, and how easily those same ideas apply to academic skills like learning to read and write.

Learning to Read is a Lot Like Potty-Training | early literacy, parenting tips, ideas for families, child development, preschool, Kindergarten, 1st grade, motivation, fun, encouragement

It’s a beautiful process, one of my favorite things about parenting. Both of my girls have become happy, independent readers…and I love it. If you’re at all concerned about your child’s journey toward becoming a reader, I have some encouragement for you:

  • Every child will learn in his/her own time.

Parents often ask me about programs and curriculums designed to teach young kids how to read. Like potty-training, I think our culture has turned learning to read and “getting ahead” into a money-making opportunity. Is Reading Eggs fun? Yes. Is it necessary? Probably not.

Learning to read is a milestone in every child’s life that cannot (and should not) be rushed. A child who is read to regularly will love books and learn how to read when the time is right.

  • There is no ONE “right” way to learn.

There has been a major push toward phonics-based programs over the past decade: books, DVDs, apps. While I certainly believe phonics are an integral part of any literacy program, there is SO much more to learning to read.

The good news is, there are as many ways to learn how to read as there are potty-training methods. In all facets of early learning, I believe in finding the “right” way for YOUR child and YOUR family.

  • Every adult caregiver needs to be on the same page.

As I have mentioned before, I have a background in elementary education. I have a HUGE respect for teachers, especially those who teach preschool and Kindergarten. I was a teacher before I was a mom, though–and if I stepped back into a classroom tomorrow, I would do things differently.

Yes, teachers know a lot about child development and classroom management, but parents are the TRUE experts when it comes to their children.

Learning to Read is a Lot Like Potty-Training | early literacy, parenting tips, ideas for families, child development, preschool, Kindergarten, 1st grade, motivation, fun, encouragement

Kids will have an incredible number of influential adults in their lives: coaches, church workers, doctors, and teachers. Parents are the consistent thread throughout a child’s lifetime. You know how your child learns best, what his interests are, what kinds of books will keep her up with a flashlight at night. When it comes to your child’s learning journey, YOU are the adult with the most influence.


Grab our FREE Guide for Parents of Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers!

Grab our FREE Guide for Parents of Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers!

Raising children who love reading doesn’t just happen. So let’s be more intentional together, okay?