How to encourage independent play in toddlers.

“Playing is the work of the child”

Maria Montessori.

How do you teach a child to play independently?

 Encouraging independent play from a young age will set your child up for success in the future. It will teach him resilience, patience, and problem-solving skills. Independent play is also good for a child’s imagination and creativity. 

child independent paly
Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

So how can your baby play indepently?

  • Don’t feel the pressure to entertain all the time

As parents, we often feel the need to entertain our children all the time. But the truth is, it’s not our job to entertain them. You can play with your child to bond and build his communication and social skills, but you are not obliged to always be there to provide that yourself. Children need their alone time too.

  • Allow your child to feel bored from time to time.

Boredom is good for your child. It will encourage him to use his imagination. You’ll be surprised what ideas your child will come up with once he’s left with “nothing-to-do”.

  • Give him a safe space in your home that’s meant to be only for playing

Children thrive in organized environments. Having his own safe space for playing will make him more secure. he’ll know what to expect and where everything is if everything is in one place. 

  • Minimize the number of toys

 Less is always more. Having so many toys all at once can distract your child. Instead, leave your child with only 1 to 3 toys at a time and hide the rest. Rotate the toys every time you notice that your child is no longer interested in a particular toy. 

  • Follow your child’s interest

Your child will usually show you what he’s interested in. Just follow the cues and provide toys or activities that are appropriate for his interest. Also, don’t give your child a toy that’s not appropriate for his developmental age and expect him to play independently with it. Do your own research and see what’s best for your child before attempting to purchase any toy. 

  • Start together and slowly remove yourself from his space

When your child is used to being entertained by you all the time, it’ll be difficult for him to get used to the idea of playing alone. That’s why you need to build up the habit of playing independently rather than quitting playing together all at once. Start playing with your child for 5 to 10 minutes and then slowly remove yourself. Sit back and observe. This will give him the security that you’re still there and will build his confidence in playing independently. 

  • Don’t play with your child 

Fight the urge to play with him. It can be frustrating for you as an adult to just sit there and watch your child struggling with his toys. But always remember that he’s learning through play. And what seems like struggling for you is actually a challenge for him to find a solution to a problem. Always make sure his toy is age-appropriate though!

  • Limit screen time

When a child watches TV for long periods of time, He’s just receiving information and not interacting. That can be dangerous for a child’s use of imagination. That’s why it’s recommended that a child only watches TV for a set amount of time. An hour a day is usually enough. 

  • Kids love sensory play

Include sensory play as a daily activity for your child. This will stimulate his imaginative skills and help him develop his fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. 

You can find some sensory activity ideas here

  • Modelling independent play

While your child is playing independently, make sure you’re doing something yourself while sitting there next to him. You need to be modelling independent play. Children observe everything. And when your child sees you quietly doing something all on your own, he’ll catch up and learn. You can do anything that requires focus such as crocheting, sewing, drawing…etc

  • Make sure it’s the right time to let him play alone

You wouldn’t expect your child to play independently when it’s time for his nap. Choose the timing wisely when you’re trying to train your kid to play on their own. Find a time when both of you are full of energy. Make sure there are no distractions. You’ll gradually remove yourself and minimize the time you spend with your child while playing. 

Sit next to him quietly and leave your kid alone for a few seconds from time to time.

  • Start young

It’s never too late to start. However, starting early will save you a lot of effort. Your child won’t build an attachment to you when it comes to playtime. 

At what age do toddlers start playing independently?

6 months is the best age to start independent play. Your baby can play independently for 5 minutes at that age. his alone playtime will increase as they grow older. 

What to do when a toddler won’t play alone?

Don’t pressure your child to play independently. As he might be suffering from separation anxietyBuild his confidence first and gradually create the habit of independence. It will take time before your child is confident enough to play on his own. Be consistent with your plan and don’t feel guilty if your child seems upset. Always reassure him that you’re there whenever he needs you. 

Is it normal for toddlers to play alone?

It’s absolutely fine for toddlers to play alone. In fact, it’s recommended by specialists that children need to play on their own quite often. Playing independently will help your child develop his sense of creativity. It’ll help him to focus more on his work and it’ll help him develop problem-solving skills. 

How much should you play with your toddlers?

Encouraging independent play doesn’t mean eliminating the time you spend playing together with your child. Playing with your child is a great opportunity to bond and create a healthy mom/dad and baby relationship. Choose activities that require 2 people to play and choose a time when both of you are totally free to do the activity. Make sure this doesn’t occur during his alone playtime. 

You can also read:

Sleep training a baby- how to and what you should expect

Best toys and activities for independent play

  • Kinetic sand
  • Painting
  • Kitchen pretend play
  • Playdough
  • Building blocks
  • Paper and glue 
  • Water pouring activity
  • Jelly animal rescue
  • Beds and pipe cleaner threading
  • Sewing on cardboard
  • Object transfer
  • Felt busy book
  • Socks sorting activity
  • LEGO
  • Puzzles
  • Construction tools( hammer and pegs)
  • Magnetic fishing game
  • Activity maze
  • Marble run

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