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How to Encourage Independent Play in Toddlers and Preschoolers

Independent play involves short periods in which your children amuse themselves with various activities. At a young age, this usually happens in a safe space nearby. 

Depending on their stage of development, that spot could be down the hallway or in the same room as you. 

Learning to play on their own is an important step in growth for children. Use the following tips and ideas to encourage independent play.

Benefits of Independent Play for Toddlers and Preschoolers

The importance of independent play is far-reaching! It also gives you a breather or precious minutes to complete your own tasks. 

This type of play is often more quiet or meditative and also holds many benefits for young children by boosting the following skills:

Independent Play Time by Age

The span of time for which your children stay attentive to independent play varies by approximate age. 

Toddlers around two years old often stick with it for just about five minutes. Preschoolers from three to four can play independently for about ten minutes, eventually building up to 15-20 minutes. 

These are very general guidelines, and an important factor is how much practice or experience they have had in solitary play. 

If children are still adjusting to the concept, they typically have to build up their attention span over time.

How to Encourage Your Child to Play Independently

Each child is different, of course, and you often have a feel for what is bound to work with your child’s learning. Try the following ideas to promote independent play:

Start When Kids are Young

Encouraging children to play on their own from the very beginning makes the practice a natural way of life. 

Let your baby play with their toes in the crib instead of rushing right in to pick them up.

Creative a Safe Environment Conducive to Play

Obviously, you want your child to be safe. By offering them a defined area with safe options, you avoid the temptation to check on them continually. 

Although they can be in the same room with you, independence is further fostered by adding a divider or visual separation.

Set Aside a Certain Time for Independent Play

If solitary playtime does not come naturally for your children (or for you), setting a certain time of the day that works out well could be helpful. 

As kids learn more about clocks and time, they can even learn when to expect this special time.

One of the easiest times to do this is while you prepare dinner.

Model Independent Play if Needed

For children who have had less practice and for those who are more cautious or introverted, you could find it necessary to model for them how to approach the designated area and get started. 

Mom helping child stack rings onto stacking toy.

Gradually Involve Yourself Less in Their Play

Little by little, shorten the periods of parallel play, in which you play alongside your child in the designated area. 

Guide them towards entering the independent play area alone by offering materials you know to be appealing for your kids.

Offer Praise as Needed

Children could need praise, in the beginning, to build up their time spent in independent play. 

Try to cut back on how often praise is given, however, to avoid them looking for you and a high-five too often. 

A worthy goal is to offer praise for a successful independent play period at the end of the time span.

Avoid Over-Filling Your Child’s Schedule

Today’s parents and children often seem to be in such a hurry. If the daily schedule for your child contains too many goals, then the time set aside for independent play could become limited. 

Leave the time open-ended to allow for the expansion of their attention spans.

Offer Age-Appropriate Toys

If the toys are not age-appropriate, children might have trouble using them, or you could find yourself worrying or checking on them more often. 

Set out toys that are safe and targeted for their age or stage of development.

Child playing alone with stacking toy.

Limit Surrounding Distractions

Avoid having the TV turned on within your child’s hearing range during independent playtime. Soft background music works for some kids but avoid loud tunes.

Allow Children to Solve Their Own Problems

Kids often run into challenges and problems about how to make things work during play. As much as possible, allow them to work out these issues on their own, which in turn gives them a sense of accomplishment.

Offer Open-Ended Toys

The best toys for kids are those that have more than one way to be used. This allows their imaginations and creativity to soar.

Rotate Toys

Although kids go through streaks of having favourites, no one wants to play with exactly the same toys day after day. 

Change a few of the options each day or so, and that way they are all rotated over time. 

Set Up Toys for Ease of Use

Keeping in mind your child’s stage of development, make sure that toys are set out or organized in a way that makes them very easy to access. 

Child's toy room neat and clean

If they are stored in a container, for example, you could leave the top off or loose for easy removal.

Offer a Limited Number of Toys at a Time

Too many toys set out at one time can feel overwhelming for some children, causing them to just flit from one toy to the next. 

Instead, offer a small number of toys of differing types each time.

Observe from Afar & Try not to Intrude

To encourage maximum independence, stay as far away as possible while ensuring safety. 

Offer your help only when you see that frustration could overwhelm a child or if they are not actively playing with materials.

Give Responsibilities for Care & Clean-Up

A sense of responsibility contributes to a child’s growing independence

Show them how to take care of materials during play and the steps for cleaning up at the end of the play period. 

Help them, at first, if needed. Eventually, they could take on this aspect without being told. Use these clean-up songs to help make it fun.

Child cleaning up their toys

Model Patience for Your Child

Kids become impatient to varying degrees when things do not work the way they want! 

Parents can be strong role models of how to use patience when dealing with various types of materials.

Independent Play Activities

Offer children access to a variety of activities and materials for each session of independent play. Here are some kid favourites:

Learning to play and work independently is a rite of passage for children. Becoming effective in solitary activities helps kids when they attend school and while dealing with changing expectations as they mature.

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Read more about how children learn through play.

Child playing with a stacking rings toy. Text overlay reads "How to encourage independent play in your kids".

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