5 ways to support your toddler’s independent play

5 ways to support your toddler’s independent play

Nothing made me appreciate the value of independent play more than working from home full-time with my kids (hello, 2020). Like many parents, I rarely experienced five consecutive minutes without someone requesting a snack, my attention or help.

Fast forward to today where I’ve learned that playing in a self-directed way is an art. It meets our children’s developmental needs head-on and also gives them a chance to learn so many of the things that just can’t be taught, but must be experienced.

Building a daily flow class

But like any tired parent knows first-hand, independent play can seem a little like a pipe dream. 

As an Occupational Therapist and Parent Educator I know first hand the power small changes, like play time can make to the holistic development of children. 

If you’re wondering how to encourage independent play, read on for five tips that I rely on to encourage kids—from babies to kindergarteners—to play independently. 

How to encourage toddler independent play

1. Add play time to the schedule 

It is easy to think that our kids would immediately be able to “just go and play” at 5 pm while you are scrambling to clean up the house and get dinner on the table. 

However, play is a muscle—it’s not a switch that can be turned on and off. It needs to be flexed and stretched regularly. Kids need the time and opportunity to grow that muscle and their innate capacity for deep concentration and creativity.

Adding at least a structured half an hour to your daily flow where you can be present at least for the first few minutes to guide them into play can do wonders in teaching children how to play independently. 

2. Stay close, but not too close

We often call independent play “playing alone” but the reality is that for young children below the age of five, to be deeply engaging in play they need us close enough to feel safe and secure. 

Close enough doesn’t mean too close though. It can be so easy to jump in while our kids are playing. Whether it’s an encouraging comment or an attempt to tell them how to place the block that keeps falling from the top of the tower. 

Related: 4 ways to encourage independent play for baby’s benefit—and yours

It is here that the challenge lies: how do we stay close enough to keep them feeling secure, without interrupting and without being bored ourselves?

One solution is to try putting some distance between you and your child, but not too much. I like to do a touchback to help with this. Once my kids are engaged in their play, I remember out loud something that I need to do. I tell them that they can continue to play and that I will be back in a minute. 

When I come back I sit a little further from the game for a few moments and then slip away to get something else done, touching back according to my child’s ability to continue to play alone. 

3. Less is more when it comes to toys

Just like trying to choose from an eight page menu is overwhelming for us, having too many toys in a play space is overwhelming for kids. 

Researchers recently tested this out with a group of toddlers in two different play spaces—one with four toys and one with sixteen toys. They found that the group with less toys played for longer and in a more creative manner. 

The exact amount of toys that will be the just-right-fit for your kiddo will be dependent on them. However, I generally find around 6-9 toys or invitations on a toy shelf works well for most families.

4. The type of toy matters

The big joke of any gift giving occasion with kids is that moment when every parent realizes that their child seems to take more interest in the box that the gift came in than the toy itself.

In light of this universal experience it should come as no surprise to us that research points to open-ended, simple toys promote higher quality play and enrichment for children.

Related: 5 educational quiet toys to foster independent play in toddlers

This is especially true in the toddler years because simple toys as well as open ended toys (like a box) lend themselves better to schematic and process-based play which is right on target for the little years.

This means that when choosing and setting out toys for independent play parents should opt for those that can be played with in many different ways. Think: blocks, dolls, magnet tiles, or sensory materials. 

5. Set up is key 

You know what it is like when you walk into a clothing store that is having a sale? That rushed feeling. And how different it feels to enter the designer shop with only three of every item, chilled music and the smell of cinnamon in the air? 

That’s kind of what it is like for kids when toys are all packed away or thrown in a box. A little frenzied, a dash of FOMO and general disorganization. 

Try to aim for your toys to look organized, have a clear purpose or function and an element of intrigue. Baskets, trays and a shelf system can be really helpful in setting this up. This will let your environment do the” inviting into play” for you.

Just like any other muscle, teaching your child to play independently takes time and opportunity to stretch in order for it to develop. Keep at it and remember the big prizes at the end: time where your child is immersed in play while you enjoy your hot coffee or send the five-times-already-drafted email.

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