Independent play for toddlers is a crucial part of their development. And an equally important piece for a mom to stay sane…amiright? Learn eight top tips to help your toddler play independently!
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What is Independent Play?
Independent play is simply the act of a child playing by themself. They are not using guidance from an adult, but rather are fully immersed in their imagination and focus on their work of play.
As Maria Montessori said, “Play is the work of the child.”
What are the Benefits of Independent Play?
For you, the mom, the benefits of independent play for toddlers is huge! You can be productive (or not!) while your child plays. This relieves the feeling of constantly needing to entertain your child.
Teaching your child to play independently is one of my top tips for mothers that have multiple young children.
You can read here about my other tips for moms with a bunch of tiny children.
The benefits for the child even outweigh our benefits as the mom. This is how children learn. Play is everything for children.
Children learn so much from play. They learn how things work. Children practice and learn language while playing. Fine motor and gross motor skills are developed through play. Self-regulatory skills are also learned this way.
The inclination to play is natural for children. It is our job to foster it by teaching independent play to our toddlers.
Two Worlds in One Space
When true independent play is happening, it’s almost like there’s two worlds occurring at the same time in the same space. Your child is immersed in their imagination or working to figure out a toy. They are focusing on their play and only their play.
At the same time, you are doing your own thing while you’re supervising. You have some physical distance from your child, but can see them. Maybe you’re wiping down countertops while listening to a podcast.
You’re thinking about your work of taking care of your child, among other responsibilities, while your child is thinking about their work: their play.
I was a teacher of young children for many years. I primarily taught kindergarten, but I also taught first and second grades. In college, the importance of play was always reinforced in my early childhood classes. In my classroom, I saw the real benefits and the need for all children to play.
When my students were given time to play and explore, they were able to make meaningful connections that they never would’ve made if I had just told them the same information.
Everyone knows that learning by doing something sticks with you way more than just being told the same thing. This is no different for children!
Anyhow, I have taken my experiences with play in the classroom, and I have applied it to my own children. Play is a central part of our days. Most days, my children spend most of their day playing.
You can read here about how and why we play outside as much as possible.
I’ve rounded up my best tips for encouraging and teaching independent play.
8 Tips to Teach Independent Play for Toddlers
1. Give time and space to play.
This is crucial. Many times, this is all that is needed. Children often know what to do naturally.
Give your child a safe place where he can play that is suited for him. This doesn’t need to be a fancy playroom. Just some space in your living room, with you on the other side of the room is enough.
2. Stay quiet and out of the way.
Of course you want to be able to see your child, so you can supervise. Aside from this, make yourself scarce. Figuratively, I mean. Look like you’re wrapped up in your own thing.
Maybe you’re cleaning the kitchen while listening to music. Maybe you’re feeding the baby and texting back a friend.
Honestly, when my kids are engaged with their play, this is one of the few times I will scroll through my phone when my kids are around. Not for too long, but I am doing my own thing while they’re doing theirs.
3. No sudden moves.
Like, at all. I’ve learned this the hard way. Many times.
If my kids are playing quietly, and everyone’s getting along, it all goes downhill if I answer a phone call, go into the next room, the music that was playing happens to stop, or if I dare to ask a child a question. Somehow I turn into a mom-magnet instantly if I break this rule.
Sometimes this means that I’m stuck in the kitchen for an extra 15 minutes. And that’s okay. I’ve learned to manage. i.e. I make sure my coffee is always right with me.
4. Choose toys wisely.
I always encourage the use of open ended toys. These would be toys that can be endlessly used many times in many ways. They spark creativity, critical thinking skills, and imagination. (Think blocks, baby dolls, legos, train tracks, a doctor’s kit etc.)
The opposite would generally be toys that light up and make sounds when you press a button.
If you’re teaching your child to play independently, you really want toys that can be used for a stretch of time. If play is the work of childhood, toys are the tools. I’m sure someone’s said that before me.
If your child is struggling with independent play, make sure the toys they are playing with can be used independently. For example, if your child struggles to put train tracks together by herself, I wouldn’t pull these out when trying to teach independent play.
When your child gets a little better at playing independently, then it would be okay for her to try this out. You just don’t want her constantly running up to you for help, when you’re trying to encourage playing alone.
5. Start slowly.
If this is a struggle for your child, begin with very small intervals of time. Maybe five minutes. Maybe only one or two minutes. Find what works for your child. Add an extra few minutes every day or so. With practice, your child’s playing skills and attention for it, will build.
6. Keep TV and screens off and away.
During playtime, allow your child to focus on play. Screens will absolutely distract and take away from the quality and focus of play.
You can read here about how we manage screens and why we barely use them with our kids. (Spoiler: It’s because we spend all our time playing.)
7. Start young!
You can begin this skill even with a small baby. One major component is your child being okay on their own, and not needing you stuck beside them 24/7.
When you’re making dinner, you can set your baby on the floor with a few toys. In principle, this isn’t a whole lot different than a toddler playing with blocks by himself.
If you can do this frequently when your child is a baby, then it really is a seamless transition to independent play as a toddler.
8. Congratulate your child!
Praise your child when they are finished an independent play session! Be specific. Let them know what positive behaviors you noticed.
You might say something like, “Wow! You played so nicely for so long! I saw you building that really tall tower! That took some hard work!”
This might sound a little overboard. And it might be for your child or your situation. But the key is to let them know that what they specifically did was good.
When we want our kids to continue positive behaviors, we have to let them know exactly what they did was good. A simple “good job!” is well-intentioned, but can leave your child a little confused about what exactly was “good.”
You might even want to encourage their independence by saying something like, “I saw you trying to open that tricky baby bottle! That was great how you tried it on your own!”
Independent play for toddlers is critical for the child, and mom alike! A child that can play well is one who will be learning lots! And behind that child is a mom that can get things done…or just sit back for a little while!