You do not need to be in your child’s face at all times during play. Independent play is not only great for a child, it’s also helpful for you to be able to do something nearby while your child is playing! Some of their biggest learning moments will come through the self-confidence, creativity, self-reliance, and problem-solving skills learned through independent play time.
Why is independent play important?
Independent play allows time for emotional regulation. It allows your child down time to relax uninterrupted. Similar to us doing something we love, it can give them time to decompress. Independent play and being alone can develop self confidence in children by allowing them freedom. Freedom to test hypothesis, try new things and take healthy risks. They create ideas, learn about them self and what they like, build on developing skills and most of all they become comfortable with who they are.
Independent play also fosters creativity and imagination. Kids can become creative especially when using open-ended toys. They learn how to maximize use of a toy and as they get older, they utilize their imagination more. Solitary play develops self-reliance and enhances a child’s ability to trust in them self, first. They learn that there isn’t always someone waiting on you at every moment. Sometimes children who aren’t encouraged to have time alone or play independently, develop a need to have someone guiding them and helping them through everything. As children grow, independent play encourages them to try things by themselves first and then ask for help if they need it. Children who utilize independent play are forced to become problem solvers, thus they have more self-reliance.
Independent play also helps with attention spans. Your child will have more focus since they have to figure things out on their own. All of these things make for more confident kids. They have a bigger imaginations, better problem solving skills, and can feel proud about what they did, not what you did. They can also feel secure knowing they have your support if they need it.
How do you teach independent play?
First, manage your expectations! Don’t expect your child to want to play alone all the time! They do need us to to show them and they may want to show us things. Remember that attention span varies especially by age. Start with a 5-6 minute attention span; a 3 year old can go up to 8 minutes. Younger than that, especially 12-20 months, it can seem impossible.
Start independent play early on. The balance early on is key. Interactive play is important for language and cognitive development but to foster independent play, try to not intervene when your baby is trying to reach for an object or flip. SEE WHAT THEY CAN DO FIRST. Balance this with interactive time where you are on the ground with them uninterrupted and sometimes just sit next to them and observe. You can chime in when they do something, but create a balance that is feasible for you and your resources.
Figure out toys and play space
To foster independent play, the most ideal toys are “open-ended” which means not battery operated. These require trial and error and for your baby/child to have to figure out how to use it or problem solve. Pushing buttons doesn’t foster creativity, so if you have battery operated toys – take out batteries and store it safely OR use it with you during play. But for independent play, use non-battery toys. For the young ones, try teething toys, wobble toys, rattles, blocks, stacking toys, etc. and as they get older, consider play kitchens, magnatiles and legos.
Make the space theirs—for toddlers, try to organize it so they know where everything is—drawers/labels so it keeps things organized. Physical clutter absolutely affects mental clutter.
Try to do this every 2-3 months or more often if you can. Try 5 toys for pre-mobile and 6-8 for crawling. Under 12 months, books/puzzles/cars count as one!
Stop interrupting them
If they are playing independently. DO NOT interrupt them. You don’t constantly need to ask questions. Let them focus. Let them figure it out. Designate YOUR time with them vs. independent time and if they are playing independent. Max that out! Look for a natural break in their concentration—for example switching to another activity and try and let that be when you move to next activity such as meal/leaving, etc. You can also give a time warning for older child over 20 months so they can anticipate.
Give them 1:1 connection when you are able
Even small spurts of 1:1 connected time can mean MORE independent play because children crave connection and value. So, if you can interact with them 1:1 for 10-20 min sessions, this can fill their cup so they can more likely want to play independently. No phones, computers, reading. 1:1 attending to child. Remember, you can use times during routines for this too—meals/bath time/morning routine. So it doesn’t have to take out so much time from your day.
Use screens as a last resort especially under 4. I don’t mind screens, but we want to maximize all other play. Independent and interactive before using screens. I really remind parents to avoid using screens as independent play under 18 months because parents often feel their kids can’t focus and they do focus on the screen… this is not play. We want to either co-watch OR do independent play with toys.
Verbalize when you are unable to play
We forget the power of verbalization. This is conncection and can set clear expectations for a child when you physically cannot be there. “I hear you want me. Mommy is finishing cooking and will be there soon.” DO NOT RUSH. Do it as you must and narrate and verbalize so they know they have to wait for you. This also teaches them patience. “It’s your time for play.” You can also set a timer for an older child, or just verbalize that it’s their time and be clear about the boundary.
For children who are NOT used to it, ease into it. At first, just sit silently beside her as she plays instead of joining in. Once she’s completely absorbed in what she’s doing, you can try moving to another part of the room. Build up time.
Verbalize if you leave. Almost like if you do sleep-training you may need to train for 2 min, 4 min, 5 min. YOU ARE NOT leaving the room here. Just verbalizing. Be consistent and make it part of the routine. You can use timers for older children.