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.
When is my child ready for independent play?
I recently had a mom ask, “How early do you think kids are able to do play independently?”
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.)
4 Ways to Encourage Independent Play
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.
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.)
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
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.