Tag: 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.)


Grab our FREE independent play learning ideas!


 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

Sign up for a FREE mini-plan! Our mini-plan gives you a sneak peek at the planning process and includes 3 custom activities for your toddler/preschooler.Once you have all your toys organized, you may be wondering how to utilize them for SMART play.

As a former classroom teacher and homeschooling mom, I want to help your toddlers and preschoolers get ready for Kindergarten! Individualized education is my passion, and I love working with parents. 

I cut through the parent overwhelm (so many ideas on Pinterest!) and target your child’s next skills with a variety of simple and fun, hands-on learning activities in one of four categories that you choose: gross motor, fine motor, literacy & language, or science & math.

Your family’s personalized learning plan begins with two questions:

  1. How does your child learn best?
  2. What does your child need to learn next?

Fill out this quick form to get a FREE mini-plan for your child!

Best Books About Kindness and Friendship

Best Books About Kindness and Friendship

Books about kindness and friendship give children the opportunity to learn about empathy in a safe environment. Taking time to talk about the characters and their choices is the most important part of the family read-aloud experience. Read on for our five favorite kindness books for kids!

Best Books About Kindness and Friendship | kindness books for kids, intentional bookshelf, teaching with books, recommended picture books

Best Books About Kindness & Friendship

(Rolling Prairie Readers does use affiliate links, which means we may receive a small commission if you purchase any items we recommend. For the full disclosure policy, you can click here.) 

Chrysanthemum
by Kevin Henkes

I’ve talked about our love for Chrysanthemum in our favorite books for new readers post, but I really do recommend this book to everyone! It’s a great story for back to school or when a child is feeling anxious about a new experience. It’s also the perfect introduction to what bullying can look like in a classroom. Why don’t Chrysanthemum’s classmates stand up for her? Are they afraid they’ll be bullied next? Use this book to talk about what YOU would have done if you were in the book.

Bonus: You can also watch this one on DVD (narrated by Meryl Streep)!

Corduroy
by Don Freeman

Corduroy is one of those “classic” books that really has endured through many generations. It’s a sweet and simple story that any toddler will love, especially if there is a special lovey in the family. Use this book to talk about taking care of others. What does it look like to be a friend?

Officer Buckle & Gloria
by Peggy Rathmann

This is one of my favorite picture books because it’s just ridiculous from begining to end. Children will love looking at all the details in the illustrations! But the best part of this Caldecott-winning book is the true friendship between Gloria the dog and her human, Officer Buckle. It’s a great invitation to discuss how our friends can (and should!) bring out the best in us.

My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother
by Patricia Polacco

Growing up, I always wanted an older brother. My husband tells me of his many adventures and mischief-filled days with his older brother, much like Patricia and Richie in this autobiographical book by my very favorite author. Don’t be turned off by the title; this relatable book ends with a very sweet moment between two siblings, showing our kids that family can be friends, too.

Chicken Sunday
by Patricia Polacco

As I mentioned, Ms. Polacco is my favorite children’s author, and I probably could list every book she’s ever written in this kindness category. But I am choosing Chicken Sunday as our family’s “book of the month” because it has so many rich characters and moments of kindness. Set a few years after the story above, Tricia is now living in California with her mom and brother. She has added new family members, neighbor Miss Eula and her grandsons Winston and Stewart, and builds a true friendship with hat shop owner Mr. Kodinski. This book features so many rich cultural and religious moments, showing our children what a life of diversity and respect can look like.

We’ll be taking the lessons found in Chicken Sunday and using them as a jumping off point for our “theme of the month” discussions in The Intentional Book Club.

You can learn more about The Intentional Book Club here, or click on the image below to join us!

Join other intentional families in The Intentional Book Club!

Before you go, I would love to hear YOUR favorite kindness books for kids!