Independent play is when children play by themselves. It is an important way for your child to learn, gain independence and explore the world around them. Here’s what parents need to know about independent play.
What’s So Important About Independent Play?
We often wish that our kids would play on their own so that we could get a break; this is reason enough to wish that they did more of it. But did you know that independent play is also vital for development?
Play is how kids learn; when they play on their own, they build focus, determination, problem-solving skills, strengthen their bodies, and learn about the world. Children play differently together than with adults, and it’s essential for us to step back and give them time to play without us.
But how do we get our kids to play on their own?
Tips To Encourage Independent Play
Create a yes space
The term “yes space” was created by Janet Lansbury to describe spaces that are 100% safe for kids to navigate on their own. They are fully childproofed, and all items are placed at a level where kids can access them independently.
This is truly the first step in getting kids to play independently. Spaces like this eliminate the need to redirect kids or tell them no because there are no dangerous things for kids to get into. This will keep you from interrupting your kids during their play and helps them to play longer independently.
Kids can freely explore, learn, and build their focus in a yes space.
How to set up a yes space:
- fully childproof the area: cover outlets, anchor furniture to the walls, remove long curtains, secure cords
- remove anything you don’t want kids to touch: trash cans, potted plants, pet food, breakable items, or your nice white couch.
- keep toys, books, and supplies on a level where kids can access them
- hang art at your child’s eye level
Once you have set up the space, crawl around at your child’s level and see if there is anything that might need to be removed or changed. Make sure to observe kids using the space to see how it works for them.
Stock The Play Area With Open-ended “Toys”
Open-ended toys are toys that are not overly specific or branded and can be played with in various ways.
They’re “passive” toys that focus on what the child can do with the toy instead of how the toy can light up, move, or make sounds. This requires kids to engage with the toys and find ways to play with them. This can keep them entertained for long periods. Kids use their imagination, create, and play in new ways daily.
Examples of open-ended toys:
- magnet tiles
- animal figures
- rainbow stacker
Avoid toys with batteries, a single designated use, and toys based on popular characters as these toys already come with a story.
Kids also love to play with many open-ended items that aren’t toys. Things like cardboard boxes, sticks, rocks, paper towel rolls, and blankets are all examples of items that kids love to play with. Kids are great at coming up with creative uses for everyday items, so don’t feel like you have to rush out and buy a bunch of new toys. Look around your house and find some things that you already have.
Don’t Interrupt When Kids Are Playing
When your kids are playing, do you ever catch yourself:
- making comments about what they’re doing: “You’re putting the food in the basket.”
- teaching: “Look! You are holding the RED car and the BLUE car.”
- praising: “Good job! You stacked the blocks!”
- making suggestions: “You could use all the animals to make a zoo!”
These are certainly not terrible comments. But they do break the concentration of our kids and teach them to be dependent on us for play ideas.
So what should you say when your children are engaged in play?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
If you want your kids to play independently, stop inserting yourself! In this way, you’re helping kids to build focus. This certainly doesn’t mean ignoring them when they engage with you, but the key is to keep interruptions to a minimum when kids are immersed in play.
There are many other times throughout the day when you can be chatting away with your kids and sharing ideas. Save talk for time
Do Chores While Kids Are Awake
Take time to clean when your kids are awake. This will give you something to do and keep you from being completely available when your kids want you to sit and play with them.
When kids ask you to play, you can say, “I’m working on the laundry right now. You’re welcome to help or to play on your own.” If they start to cry or throw a tantrum, you can acknowledge the feelings while holding the boundary:
- “You are feeling sad that I can’t play with you right now. You really wish that I could. I’m going to keep working on the laundry. You are welcome to stay here as long as you need. You can play or help when you’re ready.”
Read A Book
Sit on the couch or near your child’s play area and read a book.
You can say, “I’m going to take some time to read my book now. You may read your book, or you may play.” This keeps you busy and has the added benefit of helping you to read through that stack of parenting books you’ve been meaning to get to. It’s also a great way of modeling reading for your kids.
If this is tough for your kids, remember to validate their feelings while holding the boundary. Kids will learn that you’re consistent and follow through on your words.
Being engrossed in your own book can also help you make fewer comments (i.e., interruptions) as your kids play.
Set Up A Special Time You Spend With Your Kids Daily
We spend large portions of our day with our kids, but often there are many distractions or other things we’re trying to get done during those times. Set aside ten minutes a day to spend with your child and for those ten minutes, turn off all distractions. Let your child decide what you will do together and set a timer to help keep track of the time.
This special time will tell your child how much you love and value them. As kids learn that they’ll have this regular time, they’re more able and willing to play on their own at other times.
When you are busy at other times, you can say, “I can’t sit down and play right now, but I’m looking forward to our special time at 3:30 today.” It’s essential to be consistent and show up for your kids when you say you will.
Allow For Boredom
It’s okay for your kids to be bored. It’s not your job to rush in and come up with activities and play ideas for them. This gives them opportunities to decide what they would like to do. Boredom leads to innovation.
It takes practice for kids to learn to direct their own time. If your kids are used to being entertained by the TV, you, or other organized activities, it can take some time for them to learn what to do with their time. Leave lots of unstructured time throughout the day for them to slowly build this skill.
If they continue to look to you for play ideas, you can respond, “I’m going to do ______right now. You are welcome to join me or find something of your own to play with.”
Resist the urge to come up with things for them to do.
Don’t Overstock The Play Area
Kids can become easily overwhelmed when their play area is filled with lots and lots of toys. Everything gets dumped out. Things get broken. Pieces are missing. There are power struggles over getting everything picked up.
Less is better. It might be time to do a toy declutter to help you get rid of excess toys.
You can then place out a manageable number of toys and keep the rest packed away for when you want to trade something out.
Stick Close To Where Your Kids Are Playing
Kids like to be in the same spaces as you, so it can be helpful to stay close by as they begin to learn to play independently. Independent play doesn’t have to be unsupervised play. Maybe consider folding laundry in the playroom or setting up a small toy shelf in the kitchen.
Things To Take Into Consideration
Keep your expectations in line with the age of your kids. Babies and toddlers may only play independently for five or ten minutes, which is fine. Give them the time and space to practice from the time they’re young, and slowly this time will grow.
Every kid is different. Some like to be right next to a parent, while others would like to explore on their own. Not all kids are going to play independently for the same amount of time. Put supports in place to help kids feel comfortable while still giving them opportunities to practice.
Final Thoughts On Independent Play
Use these tips to help your kids begin to play more on their own. Be patient and give them lots of opportunities to practice.
About The Author
Laurel is an early childhood educator, parenting coach, and lover of the outdoors. She shares her knowledge and experience by writing for Kids Who Play.