Do you ever feel like your job title is CEO- Chief Entertainer Only….for your toddler? Well, what if I told you there are ways to not only get your toddler or preschooler to play by themselves more often? And if involved fewer toys than you’d expect? And would help with their brain development? Would you be interested? No, it’s not magic. But with a few simple changes to your home and mindset, you can encourage independent play for your toddlers and preschoolers and actually gain more alone time in the process.
How to Encourage Independent Play
First, let’s break down what independent play is and what it isn’t.
Independent play is simply when your kid plays (happily) by themselves. Their creative juices are flowing. They’re in “the zone.” And they behave better too! Independent play is for kids of all ages so if your child has started to play at all – no matter how young – this is for you too.
Other than giving you the parent some precious alone time, what other benefits does independent play provide? A lot. (But wouldn’t that be enough?!)
- helps them build confidence.
- Teaches them to find contentment internally instead of having to be constantly entertained.
- encourages creativity and imagination.
- Increases their attention span.
- encourages problem-solving skills.
Okay, I hear you. Now you want the good stuff.
Here are a few simple tips to help encourage independent play at your house too.
1.) Only keep open-ended toys.
Yes, it’s time to declutter! If you’ve been around here at all, you know decluttering is my thing and one of the most beneficial areas to declutter in your home is the toy room.
Let’s start easy.
Throw out anything broken or with missing pieces. Good? Good. Now let’s get that donation box.
Instead of talking about what to get rid of. Let’s talk about what to keep: open-ended toys.
Open-ended toys are any toys that will last years (quality), are desirable to kids of different ages, and can be used in multiple ways.
What does that mean? Well, a battery-operated truck that lights up and makes all the noises only has one use: a toy truck. But a toy, like blocks, can be used in multiple ways from building a castle to a faux cage for your baby sister.
Check out this more in-depth article I wrote on open-ended toys to help you out. But toys such as wooden blocks, legos, Duplos, train sets, baby dolls, and trucks are some of the best open-ended toys for your child.
And if you’re wondering, yes, 99.9999999% of battery-operated toys will not fall into this category. I know it sounds harsh but your life and your kid’s life will be better without them.
2. Make sure their basic needs are met.
A tired, hungry, or sad child will not likely want to go play by themselves.
Before you get frustrated that your kid won’t play by themselves ask yourself if they need a snack, a nap, or maybe a little quality time with you.
One trick I started with my then three-year-old was to set a timer for 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon where I gave her my full attention. I put my phone down and I simply got on the floor and played whatever she wanted to play. Now that she’s a little older I’ve incorporated a short Bible study, and a quick lesson on her letters, and then the rest of the time we usually play some imagination game she makes up.
Once her little “love tank” is full I’ve found she usually runs off and plays happily by herself. And I get some much-needed time to myself…minus the fact that I have a baby so I usually try to time it with nap time too. 😉
3. Create the right atmosphere.
I already talked about decluttering toys that stifle your kid’s creativity instead of inspiring it. Now it’s time to talk about creating the right atmosphere.
Make sure your kids have a safe, organized “yes” space to go play in during their independent playtime. If their playroom is a mess it might overwhelm them. (Doesn’t it overwhelm you?)
Also, if your child is very young, make sure all furniture is properly bolted and nothing can fall on them in this “yes” space. We want them to feel like they can let themselves loose in here and not potentially get hurt.
Lastly, you can even leave a few items out to start their independent play. Dump the box of Duplos on a time. Set up a teapot and cups with their stuffed animals. Build the track for the train set. Create something that invites them to play.
You might have instant luck with these tips, or it might take a while. Stay the course…especially getting rid of toys that stifle creativity. And soon you’ll be enjoying so much-needed alone time to do whatever the heck you want to do.
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Then you’ll want to check out one of my favorite courses, “Purposeful Playspace” which dives into all these topics even more and the reasons behind them.
In it you’ll learn:
- How to create a dedicated space in your house your kids will want to play in.
- Have fewer toys but see your kids engaged in MORE play.
- Have a space that is simple and functional which actually helps your child develop mentally, physically, and socially.
- Tailor your child’s play to their personal interests and strengths.