‘MOMMY! MOMMY, WATCH!’ Sound familiar?! Does your toddler insist on your undivided attention every time they play? Are you feeling a bit under surveillance and frustrated as a result? Well, now may be a good time to introduce your little one to playing on their own.
Teaching your toddler to entertain themself isn’t just a great way to keep you sane. Independent play time is one of the most important parts of your toddler’s day, and a skill they will use for the rest of their lives. It supports them to focus, think critically and build self-reliance, curiosity, confidence and creativity.
Encouraging your toddler to play on their own might seem like an impossible task if they insist that you watch their every move! But with patience and these expert tips, your little one will be well on their way to occupying themselves in no time. Here’s how to get your toddler to play independently.
What Is Independent Play For Toddlers?
Playing independently is giving your little one the time and space to safely play by themselves for a certain period.
Your toddler could be playing on a play mat in a corner of the same room as you, or they could be in their crib, a playpen or their own room.
When they’re really little, independent play will be just a few minutes, but as they grow into an older child, they’ll be able to happily play alone for up to 45 minutes to an hour.
Meanwhile, you’ll be able to get on with some work or chores, take a shower, have a nap or just enjoy some time for yourself.
Why Independent Play Is Great For Toddlers
Empowering toddlers to take control of their own playtime offers so many developmental opportunities.
They’ll Learn Their Own Lessons
Research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that
independent play encourages young kids to be creative. Us well-meaning adults too often tell our children what to do and how to do it, or how to play with toys in a specific way, rather than letting them figure it out for themselves.
When left to their own devices, children are far more likely to come to their own happy conclusions through trial and error.
It Teaches Them To Problem Solve
This may cause some frustration along the way – just observe your toddler throwing their blocks around in a rage! – but they’ll keep practicing until they stack those blocks and learn to balance them well.
It Teaches Them Cause And Effect
If your toddler throws their favorite teddy out of reach, they won’t have teddy to play with any more. They’ll file this information away for next time.
It Fosters Self-Confidence
Constantly seeking your help and intervention can stunt your child’s natural capabilities. By solving problems and making their own decisions, they’ll increase their self-confidence. When they find a solution all by themselves, they feel empowered in their own ability.
How Children Learn Through Play: Ages And Stages
Independent play is a teachable skill but it will look different for different kids, depending on their age and their developmental stage.
From about three months to 2.5 years, children engage in what is known as solitary play. There’s no goal except to explore objects and toys that interest them.
Little ones at this stage are often more interested in less conventional objects, like wrapping paper or a cardboard box, and the environment – filling and pouring from a bucket of water, for example. A shape-sorting box would be a great toy at this stage.
From 2.5-3.5 years, your toddler will begin to watch others as they play nearby. Spectator or onlooker play looks like your child interacting for a period, then stepping back to observe. They could watch while other children use the slide, for example, before having a go themselves.
The best way to support your child through these stages and encourage them to find independence and resilience is by giving them space, being patient and giving them opportunities through age- and developmentally-appropriate toys.
Fostering independent play at these early stages will help them advocate for themselves, problem solve and make decisions when they come to play alongside and with other children.
How To Get Your Toddler To Play Independently
You, alongside your partner, grandparents and other carers, are your child’s entire world – their source of safety, security and comfort. You’re also your toddler’s first playmate. It makes sense, therefore, that if you want your little one to feel confident enough to play on their own, you need to start them off in their play.
Connect with your child over an object or toy. Put objects in a box, try the box on as a hat or pile up some blocks and knock them down. Just enjoy the time together.
Ease Into It
Once your toddler’s having fun and absorbed in play, you can retreat into the background, letting them take charge and be in control.
At first, just sit silently beside them as they play instead of joining in. Once they are completely engrossed in what they’re doing, move to another part of the room. Don’t disappear completely – they’ll feel more comfortable with you nearby.
Praising your toddler’s progress will help them feel validated. Tell them how proud you are of them playing by themselves and what a great job they’re doing. They’ll be pleased that you’re taking an interest and feel confident that they are capable.
Don’t expect miracles. Your 12-month-old toddler who isn’t used to playing alone probably won’t be able to manage much more than a few minutes on their own at first. Start with five minutes and grow from there. By the time they’re two years old, they’ll be comfortable with 10-15 minutes’ independent play.
It doesn’t sound like much but it’s laying the foundations for independence later on, as well as giving you much-needed snatches of time throughout the day.
Create Prompts To Play
One of the best tricks to encouraging independent play is letting your child discover their own games (with a bit of help from you!). Simply highlight certain toys or objects by setting them up in a particular way and let your toddler happen upon them.
The following ideas take literally a few minutes to prep but will start your little one off in the right direction:
- Grab a cookie sheet and set up an enticing scene – a picnic with an array of play foods or some toy trains and track.
- Sort out blocks or Lego into piles by color.
- Build half a structure of something: a tower, a train track or pile up some play rings.
- Start off a jigsaw puzzle.
- Screw up balls of paper and pop them in a box.
- Fill some plastic bottles with beans, water or dry pasta to create shakers (you may need earphones if you’re trying to work with this one!).
Rotate Their Toys
Become an avid toy editor. Like adults, children get overwhelmed when they have too much choice. Stash ‘stale’ toys away out of sight for a few weeks and reintroduce them at a later date. The novelty will make them seem like new for your toddler!
Provide Open-Ended Objects and Multifunctional Toys
Open-ended items provide plenty of scope for independent thinking. The humble cardboard box, for example, can be a hat, car, container or den.
Pots and pans have lots going on – they have lids to remove, handles to look at, you can put things inside them, plus they’re lovely and noisy!
Cups are another open-ended winner. Fat Brain Toys Suction Cupz can be used to fill, pour, scoop and float. They can also stick to windows, walls, tables, and floors – endless fun.
Give Them Some Space
Don’t hover! Once your little one is happily playing on their own, don’t be tempted to interrupt. Make sure they’re safe and observe from a distance. If you’re too close, they’re more likely to clamor for your attention.
Embrace The Mess
Messy play is inconvenient – we get it – but it’s a lot of fun for your toddler. It’s also soothing and will keep them engaged for a long time. Contain the mess by designating space for it indoors, if you can.
No time to set up a messy zone? Head to the bathroom and pop your little one in the tub. Give them a can of shaving cream and let them go at it! Or provide bowls of dry lentils or pasta to play with.
Create Space To Move
Kids love to move. Put some music on and allow your toddler to throw some shapes while you flop on the couch and have a rest.
You can also create a safe space inside for them to play. Place cushions and pillows on the floor to create ‘islands’ and tell them the floor is hot like lava. Encourage them to jump from one island to another, avoiding the lava.
Tailor Play To Your Child
Create play opportunities you know your kid is naturally drawn to. If they adore giving tea parties, encourage this by providing some realistic play foods.
If building’s their passion, help them think outside the box with a stacking toy – we love Fat Brain’s Spin Again.
Most children love to mirror the adults around them. For example, if your little one loves to ‘help’ you tidy up the house, get them a toy vacuum cleaner that allows them to simulate the real thing.
Or if they’re fascinated by watching you put on make-up, get them a toy vanity kit or give them some of your old brushes and a mirror.
Try some of these ideas and follow your child’s lead. You’ll see them thrive as they discover their newfound independence. You’ll also notice new things about your toddler’s play and capabilities that surprise you as you help them with their social skills and emotions.