Encourage independent play

The importance of independent play
Earlier today, my two-year-old stirred his “meatballs and pasta,” aka the orange pipe cleaners and colorful puffs (that pipe cleaners and colander Pinterest activity isn’t going away anytime soon). He scooped the meatballs into the colander and even “tasted” his meal to make sure all was cooking well. And where was I? I was sitting a few feet away on the couch, alternating between writing notes for this particular blog post and reading a book, purposely avoiding hovering over his task.

I’m a huge fan of independent play. I decided early on that I wanted my kiddo to learn and enjoy how to play on his own in addition to playing with others. Sure, alone time provides me a breath in a normally busy day, but the benefits extend most importantly to my toddler:

  • Privacy: Without a watchful eye peering into everything they’re doing, kids are free to play without fear of embarrassment or judgment. My toddler even pushes me away or asks me to go back to where I was so that he can continue playing in private (although sometimes he’ll do so when he’s doing something naughty).
  • Problem-solving: Playing alone provides kids the chance to concentrate and focus, particularly when trying to learn a new skill or figure out how a toy works. Recently, my toddler kept practicing how to close a particular box by sliding in its plastic cover from the side. I could have easily jumped in each time and solved his problem but preferred that he figure it out on his own and seek help should he decide he needed it.
  • Less intrusions: Adults are less likely to jump in and hijack kids’ play and determine a certain direction. Alone time provides them the opportunity to truly create their own world however way they please.
  • Ability to self-entertain: Rather than seeking outside stimulation from parents and caregivers, kids who play independently can easily entertain themselves in almost any environment. I don’t know if my toddler has ever been bored since he’s likely to find fun anywhere (Except clothing stores. Is this a guy thing or what?).

Although independent play is at its root played… independently, I still do my best to encourage my toddler by:

  • Setting him up with props. For instance, I placed the aforementioned “meatballs and pasta” along with the colander on his little table. There’s no way he could have reached up the kitchen cupboard to grab the colander, nor sift through the hallway cabinets to find the pipe cleaners. But once I set him up with his playthings, he’s usually ready to go.
  • Answering his questions. I’m usually nearby even if he’s playing by himself, so once in a while he’ll holler a question and knows that I’m nearby to answer.
  • Praising him. While I make sure to provide him ample time and space to himself, I also want him to know that his behavior is encouraged. I keep the praise subtle though, and stick to descriptive praise rather than evaluative: “Looks like you’re enjoying your meatballs and pasta.” Often I won’t even say anything but swing by and run my hand through his head or give him a kiss.

I normally know when my toddler is ready for more interactive play: he’ll either come up to me, call me over or start talking more frequently than when he had been quietly playing. Those are my cues that he’s ready for a play mate.

Playing with others of course has its own benefits as well: the “distractions” of parents, caregivers and other kids are also necessary for kids to develop social skills and handle emotions, for instance. Yet as parents, we often feel obligated to play with our kids all the time. I know I’ve felt guilty for washing the dishes while he plays at his little table once in a while.

I have to remember that independent play isn’t merely “lazy parenting.” Playing alone provides kids so many benefits that we shouldn’t feel guilty when we’re not interacting with our kids all the time. And while independent play takes place for brief pockets throughout the day (sorry, no two-hour blocks of me-time here), I still encourage alone time with my toddler for its many benefits.

How do you encourage independent play with your kids? Is your child able to play by himself or herself or does he or she require more adult interaction? Does your child thrive with independent play or need more interaction?

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25 thoughts on “Encourage independent play

  1. I too am a huge fan of independent play but occasionally feel guilty (for no good reason) when my daughter plays on her own.

    I do my best not to interrupt any spontaneous play my daughter engages in. Though if she does tell me to go away it’s almost always because she wants to do something she’s not supposed to. 🙂

  2. Eli has always enjoyed his independent playtime. Often, we’ll start out playing together… let’s use Legos as an example. He’ll ask me to build him something (and airplane or a “big barn” usually) and after it’s completed, we’ll play together for a little bit. At some point, he starts playing more with the Legos and less with me, and at that point I tell him I am going to go do dishes or whatever and let him be. A lot of times, if I try to get him to play by himself right off the bat, he won’t do it, but if I start out with him, then he’s ok.

  3. I’m with you – independent play is so important. Luke will actually go in his room and play by himself. Sometimes I love to sit around the corner and watch him when he doesn’t know I’m there! It’s so intriguing to see their little brains processing.

  4. I’m enjoying a stay with my faraway grandsons. I encourage their free play and suggest activities when the two boys start to squabble. They know that as long as they play nicely, Gramma won’t give them a chore to do.

  5. I absolutely agree with this! And rarely do I feel guilt about letting my son play independently. We have seen him master so many skills just by doing his own thing over and over (and over and over).

  6. I am guilty of interrupting my son’s playing – I know it’s important for him to enjoy playing alone. But I feel the same guilt you describe, as if I’m being a lazy parent if I am not constantly ON and entertaining my son. The drawback – dealing with his boredom in places like the doctors office. It will be hard, but I know I need to take a step back and let him explore the world for himself. Thank you for the tips. As always, great salient points!

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  8. Independent play is something that doesn’t come easily to Livi. She has always been one who wanted to be held a lot, has had separation anxiety her whole life, and usually needs an entertainer.
    Nonetheless, every day I try to encourage her to play on her own. I usually start out playing with her and then slowly fade into the background. The results are mixed but it’s definitely better since she can walk.
    I still don’t get around to any housework during the day but I won’t give up because like you I think independent play is very important for a child’s development. One aspect i find important is that it encourages them to use their imagination.

  9. I agree! I love independent play. I feel like it helps to build their imagination and self confidence. Yes, I get pushed away, too!
    I’m going to have to try that pipe cleaner activity!

  10. I think independent play has a lot to be said for it. I started this with my bub from the time he started showing signs of being a little interactive. I call it blanket time which is I left him on his own with toys around him while I dealt with other stuff peeking at him now and then.Now that he’s mobile, he will still play on his own for some time and then want to be held for a little after which I place him on his mat again. He usually rotates around his blanket exploring different stuff!

  11. This is something that is very difficult for my son, and I’ve been consciously working at it for a couple of months now. My son is a lot like how hnMom describes her daughter, except he’s probably a bit older. I’ve had to learn to deal with the guilt and let him squawk a bit in protest. If he ever seems truly distressed, I then respond to him, but if he just wants company in his play I let him eventually give up on convincing me and find something to do. He struggles in knowing how to play.He often wants me to play with his toys while he sits back and “supervises”. He really has trouble with knowing how to extend his play and entertaining himself. Much of this is due to his developmental delays. I am finding that with continued practice though he is making progress and starting to get it. It thrills me when I see him absorbed in an activity without me!

  12. Too many times parents think we need to SHOW our toddlers how to play with a specific toy. It is so much better if we let our children show US how they want to play. More learning and more fun happens with that type of play….child led play not adult led! Have fun!

  13. I agree with you too. I have spied my little one talking to all her stuffed animals and reading her books quietly. Just like how we like our privacy, I believe toddlers enjoy the time to their own too without us hovering all over them.

  14. YOU are one of my favourite bloggers.
    My kids are great with independent play, the problem I have is trying to resolve the issue of one of them wanting to play with the other, while the other wants to play independently. Suggestions?

  15. I guess, since this is my first kiddo, I just wonder when you start encouraging independent play. My little man is 15 months right now and seems to just barely be figuring out what “playing” is. Is there like a “set” time that kids start to figure this out? Should I already know this answer? hahaha

    • Maybe independent “time” can also be used in lieu of “play.” I like what Rashida wrote above regarding her little guy, and we did this too: as a baby, we would set him down on a blanket and surround him with toys while we were a few feet away. So even though he wasn’t exactly holding cars or talking to his stuffed animals, just the fact that he was learning and seeing away from his parents helped encourage independent play.

      By the time he got older and was holding onto toys, he felt comfortable exploring those toys on his own, whether someone was nearby or not.

      That’s great though that your 15 month old is starting to play with toys. If only there was a set time to everything! 🙂

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