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3 Ways to Encourage Independent Play

Do you ever get tired of playing? You know, like with your kids? Their Legos, their dolls, their marble run, their latest and greatest toys are all spectacular, but playing with them is not the vision most parents have of how to spend their time at home. Playing with our little munchkins can be such a joy, but there are times we may need to do something else, such as cook, clean, or – dare I say it – take part in some “me time” to simply relax or enjoy a hobby. If you do become weary of playing with your child for long periods of time, you’re not alone. As it happens, there are a whole bunch of us parents who love our kids dearly but do not necessarily want to play with them every minute of every day. And what is even more delightful to find out is that kids benefit just as much as parents do from having some alone time during play.

When kids play independently, creativity, problem-solving, confidence, and critical-thinking skills are strengthened. These are things that kids need in order to grow up into the happiest and most successful versions of themselves. This is great news for us parents, especially for those of us who have the tendency to feel guilty when we turn down our children’s request to play with them. It turns out that by occasionally saying no to these requests, we are helping them grow and develop the skills needed for a successful adulthood.

So, what do we do when our kids do not want to play without us right by their side? I was hoping you’d ask. It turns out that not all kids are born with skills to play independently. For many kids, independent play is a learned skill. If independent play is not happening now, it can happen in the future by making some adjustments to what we do, as parents. Here are three things to keep in mind when working towards increased independent play.

1. Create a Special Space

First, work at increasing the child’s comfort level of being alone in a space. This can be done with children as early as a few months old by surrounding them with colorful and delightful toys that you can watch them play with from a distance for 10 15 minutes at a time. As babies grow to become toddlers, begin talking about what you like to do alone and why. Let them know that being alone can be satisfying.

For children who have an understanding of time, you can begin using a timer to create a clear boundary around the independent playtime. When starting out, set up the independent playtime boundary for no more than 10 minutes, and instruct the kiddo to play independently until he or she hears the ding. Over time, the amount of independent playtime can be increased to match your child’s skill level. Also – and this is a big one – set your child up with an activity to get him or her started. This is especially important in the beginning of working on independent play skills. This could be making sure he or she has a puzzle, a box of Legos, some books, or a craft ready to enjoy. It does not matter what it is, as long as you know it’s something that will catch your child’s interest.

2. Find the Right Toys

Second, create a kid-friendly space filled with safe, playful activities. If you don’t have the luxury of a designated play room, create a play corner or a play box filled with items that will evoke a desire to play. The key is to rotate the toys and projects that are available in these areas, so that the child does not become bored over time with the same stuff. Open-ended toys, such as costumes, Legos, and action figures are must-haves in these play areas, as they increase the likelihood of imaginative and creative play.

3. Embrace the Mess

Third, if we truly want to support our child in becoming an independent player, we must accept that things will get messy – really messy. Giving children the space to use their creativity will inevitably create a less-than-organized situation, but it will do so much for their learning and for their parents’ free time. If you’re a parent who cringes at the thought of finger-painting or backyard mudslides, try thinking ahead of ways to help minimize some of the mess so it is more tolerable for you. I have a feeling that when you see how long that mess will keep your kiddo occupied, it won’t look so bad after all. Happy playing, everyone!


This was made by

April Becker  author

April Becker is a marriage and family therapist specializing in the treatment of children and teens. She graduated from UW-Stout and is the owner and lead therapist at HopeTree Family Therapy in Eau Claire. April is passionate about supporting children and their families as they successfully ...