How To Encourage Your Child to Play Independently

While it may be difficult at first to leave your child to their own devices, with the proper boundaries and expectations in place you can encourage your child to play independently.

Establish Independence Through Routine

Don’t fear independent play. The idea of letting your child run off to play on their own might sound terrible. You may worry about them getting into trouble or hurting themselves. It's important to remember that part of letting your child play independently is setting boundaries and expectations.

Once these are laid out, you can trust them to play in healthy ways. They can learn a lot by playing on their own and flexing their imagination. 

Build independence into your child's routines. People are conditioned through their routines. If you typically spend every minute with your child, they come to expect it. If you're also used to doing everything for your child, such as managing their playtime, they will expect that, too. 

Luckily, you can control how you parent. Start by giving them more control in their routines. Instead of setting out their toys yourself, have them do it. Instead of determining what activities they'll do today, give them choices. Simple tasks that they can do on their own will open the door to being more independent during their playtime.

Part of establishing a routine is setting expectations. You may need to have lower expectations at first to get them started. Don't worry — this is a process that will take some time and practice.

Let them help you. Rather than entertaining your child throughout the day, let them help with chores. Helping with tasks around the house is a great way for them to build some independence, feel like they are contributing, and get some much-needed cleaning done.

Set Playtime Boundaries

Give them space. If you can, set up a designated play space for your child. Doing so can encourage the separation between playtime and non-playtime. For younger children, a space near you is ideal so they don’t get into too much trouble.

Communication with your child is important. Setting expectations for how you use your space will help them develop a sense of independence and ownership for the isolated time. While in their own space, let them choose their activities and ensure they won’t be interrupted. Similarly, make sure they understand that they should do the same for you. 

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Give them toys. Part of letting them choose how they spend their time is to provide them with the necessary tools to choose. In younger kids, you may have to observe what they do and don’t like playing with. Consider the following when choosing toys and supplies:

  • Encourage artistic creativity by making sure they have paper, crayons, and markers.
  • If they like building structures, make sure they have Legos and building blocks.
  • Pay attention to the shows and books they enjoy and provide plush toys or dress-up accessories that complement those interests.
  • Start small — too many items to choose from can result in decision paralysis, leading them back to you.

Give them time. Set aside specific times for your child to play independently and times to play with them. Since you likely have other tasks to get done, the time allotments are up to you. It can be as small as having them play alone for 5 minutes followed by 15 minutes of playing with you. Alternatively, you can play with them for 15 minutes followed by 45 minutes of independent play.

Give them attention. Rather than letting your child play independently for a while and moving on with your day, talk about it afterward. Ask about what they did, acknowledge anything they accomplished, and let them feel that you see them and their efforts. This type of positive verbal feedback will help them feel more confident about playing independently.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 02, 2021

Sources

SOURCES: 

Child Mind Institute: “How to Build Independence in Preschoolers.”

Cornell University: “Playing Alone Can Promote Creativity, Initiative, and Esteem.”

NPR: “Kids Know How To Occupy Themselves. We Need To Let Them Do It.”

PBS: “How to Encourage Your Preschooler to Play Independently.”

Yellow Brick Road: “Teaching Kids to Play Independently.”

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