Independent play: encouraging your toddler to play solo

Kinderling News & Features

Exploring and playing with your kids is a great bonding time, and a great opportunity for sharing. However, independent play is crucial for a child’s development – and of course, you need a couple moments to yourself too!

In lieu of relying on technology, here are a few ideas to help your tot play happily, without you having to guide all the action.

Begin as soon as possible

If your baby has never been left to play solo, then they’ll probably find it very difficult to do in toddlerhood. This doesn’t mean you should never play with bub, but just ensure you aren’t always the source of entertainment.

Leave them to their own devices from time to time in a safe place with something to look at or play with, where you can see and easily reach them if need be. This can be as simple as placing your little munchkin in a bouncer on a rug near the kitchen with a toy or book while you do some chores around them.

Slowly introduce it

Don’t expect your toddler to suddenly start playing for hours on end all alone. Learning independent play can take some time to get used to, and a gentle and gradual approach can often be the way forward.

One way to achieve this is to sit alongside your child while they are playing, but not proactively engage in the activity. After a while simply walk away for a few moments and then come back (before they have a meltdown), each time removing yourself for longer periods of time. Gradually they’ll realise they doesn’t always need you to be there, but still be comforted knowing you aren’t far away. 

Use screens and flashing toys in moderation

The television, iPad and fancy games with flashing lights, music and buttons are all great – in moderation. But if this is all your kids have ever known, then they’re not really being given the opportunity to use their minds to be creative and entertain themselves.

Try opting for more traditional toys like wooden blocks, playdough, books, balls and dress ups; and don’t forget about everyday items they can play with that aren’t toys – like pots and pans, sticks and mud, or laundry baskets and pegs.

Show curiosity in their play

When children play it’s very serious to them, it’s their work after all, so it’s important to let them know you appreciate and are interested in what’s happening. Make sure you take the time to engage and connect fully with them about play, for even just a few minutes, before leaving them to it and praise them when it’s finished.

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Also try not to interrupt play too much – respect what they’re doing and give them warning when it’s time to wrap up a game or activity. This way they’ll be more inclined to feel confident and proud about what they’ve achieved.

Allow them to make decisions

This sounds simple enough but it’s amazing how many parents end up controlling playtime with their kids instead of letting them run with it. Allow them to build the tower or choose what dolls to bring to the tea party. By handing over the reins more often when you are playing, it will help them do this at other times when you aren’t glued to their side.

Suggest activities

A good way to help encourage independent play is to set up various toy or activity stations that your little one can play at. Often toys are in hard-to-reach places or they may not think about doing an activity unless it’s right there and ready to go, so grab those puzzles out from the cupboard, or set up paper and crayons at a table and gently encourage him in the right direction.

Be firm

If you always give in to your child and play with them, they’ll never learn to develop their independence. It might be hard to begin with, but if you get them started and then explain that you now need to do some work, they’ll eventually start to realise that this is how it is.

Just remember to be kind, keep an eye on them and give encouragement during playtime when necessary.

Give company, not instruction

If you’ve got a really clingy toddler then you might need to move towards play that involves them being right next to you – but without you actually playing. This could be drawing at the table while you sit and pay the bills, or giving them a ‘chore’ to do – such as helping cook dinner (playing with pots at your feet) or helping put clothes away (putting pegs in and out of the basket).

Consider an animal friend

If all else fails, you could also consider getting a pet. Some children really need the close presence of someone else and if there are no other siblings around, then a pet such as a dog can be an excellent substitute – if it’s the kind of animal that will sit happily at their feet while they talk to them and play.

What tips do you have for getting your toddler to play independently?

This article was originally published on Babyology.