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toddler playing with playdough

Do you ever look at other people’s kids in awe as they’re playing independently? While it sometimes seems like our own kids will never develop this skill and we’ll be stuck building Lego dynasties until they go to university, independent play is an ability you can absolutely cultivate in your children. These ten tips will not only help your little one play on their own more frequently, they’ll also spark creativity and help tiny imaginations flourish.

Help! There are fingers under the bathroom door and they won’t go away!

All we moms really want is five minutes to ourselves. To drink our coffee hot and not find it hours later cold in the microwave. We cross our fingers and hope for a peaceful shower, and to be able to evacuate our bowels without an audience. Unfortunately, for many of us in the throes of motherhood with toddlers and preschoolers, those times of needed privacy often happen with fingers under the door, and screaming on the other side of it.

All day long it seems my children are yelling in three-part chorus, 

Hey Mom! Play with me!” or “Hey Mom, watch this!” 

And I do. I like to think I am the type of mom who gets on the floor with her kids building lego and block towers, making a good effort to imitate motor noises for the toy cars. But I’m only human and eventually my engine runs out of gas, and I want to be the mama who is the supervisor and not the source of all the entertainment.

Over the years I’ve learned a few things about encouraging my kids to play independently. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. The point is to keep after it, stoking the fires of independence and internal ingenuity. 

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1. Start Early

Look for ways you can allow your child a certain level of independence as early as possible. Even when they are infants, hold them, cuddle them, sniff their newborn heads—then be intentional about setting them down. Some babies can tolerate being set down to kick and play on their blanket on the floor a little easier than others. Some babies need to practice. Start small. 

Even if they scream one minute later, at least they were independently lying under their play gym for one minute. Keep putting them down, they will figure it out. At least that’s what a more experienced mom told me shortly after I’d first given birth, and it seemed to work for me. 

When they begin to crawl, give them a space in which they can safely explore. Put up safe boundaries. When they’re tiny, a playpen might suffice, but, as they grow, some parents I know have set up an entire baby play yard.

The idea is to set up a space to give your child the illusion of independence. Switch up the toys within this space every so often to keep things interesting, and expand its borders as the child grows. Childproofing is for your child’s safety, but it is also helpful in the journey toward independence, both for your child and yourself, in chasing the dream of visitor-free shower time. 

2. Resist the Urge to Micromanage

This is a big one. Being comfortable with independence or solitary play is actually a sign of a healthy self-esteem in a child; that they feel secure. When they are little is the time we can start to invest in their sense of self-worth. We can do this by loosening the reins a little and allowing them to have as much freedom as is safe. 

Try not to instruct them how to play. They literally cannot do it ‘wrong’. Set the blocks in front of them and walk away. If you must, sit on the floor with them under the guise that you are going to play with them, build a block tower, knock it down, and walk away. Let them play with the blocks the way they want to play with the blocks. 

Art can also be a powerful tool to encourage independence—specifically art projects that are process, rather than product, driven. 

Give them as little instruction as possible, and see what they come up with. My son once decided he was going to walk on water. He cut some ‘shoes’ from cardboard and taped them to his feet. The next time we went to the pool he tried out his invention and sank like a rock. I could have discouraged his experiment, instead, I allowed him the opportunity to discover the results for himself. 

Do not underestimate your child’s intelligence. Children are naturally creative and imaginative. When we micromanage, we are doing so for our own sake, not our child’s. When we dictate to them ‘how’ to play or create, we are telling them their way isn’t good enough, cutting their creativity off at the knees, and sabotaging their budding independent streak before it even starts. 

3. Keep the Toys Interesting

Do not have all of the toys in your home accessible to your child at all times. Keep some stashed away up high where they can’t reach. For my own sanity, I keep puzzles and board games out of reach, and bring them out when my child seems interested in tackling one. This also helps ensure puzzle pieces and game pieces stay contained rather than floating freely at the bottom of the toy box.

If you can get away with it, squirrel away an unopened toy or two at Christmas. Put them on an upper shelf to bring out on a rainy day. 

Some families I know, especially those who live in a smaller space that is easily overwhelmed, rotate books and toys every few months to keep them new and exciting. 

Keep prepared sensory experiences out of reach. This includes bins full of dry beans or rice they can measure or pour. Playdough can also be an excellent way to keep a toddler’s attention. 

Branch out from the typical play dough tools that are chronically crusted over and instead give them a handful of toothpicks to poke with. (Toddlers love multiples of the same item.) Or allow them to ‘grasp‘ a perfectly safe, dull butter knife! 

Allow them to use some of your own kitchenware in their sensory experiences. Give them your actual measuring cups and spoons from the kitchen and let them ‘cook’. Small children will always want what is yours. 

 

4. Beware of Stimulation

Sometimes less is more. How many times have we seen our child, surrounded by hundreds of toys, melting down because they are bored? Perhaps they aren’t really bored and are actually over-stimulated. If an environment is cluttered or messy, they may begin to emulate their environment.

There are times where starting with a clean slate, and providing minimal toys will give an overwhelmed child a direction and focus. This isn’t great news for those of us who are *ahem* organizationally challenged, but putting in the extra effort every now and then to tidy up can pay off big in encouraging independent play. 

It allows a child to recalibrate with their toys and environment, and provides them with surface area in which to play. Tray activities (see below) are great for this as well.

 

5. Know Your Child

I have two daughters. While they are very similar, I am learning quickly that they have different preferences. My littlest daughter loves tiny things involved in her pretend play. Little dolls or plastic animals are quickly given personalities and put into families. Small houses, toy cars, and blocks to build cities are incredibly interesting to her. She loves working with tiny manipulatives, putting them into containers and sorting them.

My older daughter at the same age had no interest in playing with dolls, she wanted to be the doll in her pretend play. Filling her toy box with dress up clothes and accessories was the way to encourage independent play. Adding a mirror in her room brought out her inner starlet. If I added music to her imaginative scenario, I might not see her for what seemed like hours. 

What does your child seem specifically interested in? Take note on what type of activities keep their attention. 

Consider what is age appropriate for your child. Do not expect a 3 year old to be able to cross stitch, or a 5 year old to stay engaged with toddler-geared activities. 

 

6. Do not Fret a Mess

Creative kids are messy kids. Repeat again to yourself as often necessary, “Creative kids are messy kids.” Independent children usually leave a trail of debris behind them. They build forts and mix toys together to create entire worlds made out of blocks and cars and tiny dolls. They want to see what happens when you pull all of the cotton balls apart and soak them in water. 

Eventually, they will become better at helping with cleaning up, but when they are little—let’s face it, in one way or another we will pay for those peaceful moments we managed to achieve. 

Every mom of littles knows the fear that creeps up the back of their neck when they realize their toddler has been quiet for a significant amount of time. Sometimes having to contend with a mess is the price we pay for a minute to ourselves. 

So, hide the permanent markers and scissors where they can’t get to them, and always try to keep the Magic Erasers on hand. 

 

7. Let them Be Bored

Boredom fosters creativity. Resist the urge to solve their problem and become their entertainment. My toddler once spent the whole day carrying around a piece of fuzz she’d found on the ground. I’m not entirely certain what she was saying about it, but it had a story and personality. The point is, she was dialed into her own imaginative reality.

Give yourself permission to have bored children. Sometimes we view their boredom as a personal reflection on us! Just because they are bored does not make you a boring or bad parent. Boredom is a catalyst for creativity. Creativity gives way to independence.

As they get older and begin to understand the concept of time, you can literally set a timer and tell them to go play alone for 20 minutes. Give them little to no instruction. Send them outside if you can do so safely. Usually if I give my kids a specific timeframe, they will come up with something to do. It’s amazing what kids will do when left to their own devices.

 

8. Limit Screen Time

Speaking of devices, so much of parenting nowadays can feel like Mom vs. Screen. For parents of toddlers and young children, there can be an inner temptation to allow the television to become our child’s constant companion because it is an effective babysitter. Screen time can be a great ally in the quest for an uninterrupted shower. At the same time, too much of it and it can quickly become your worst adversary. 

Toddlers and young children are balls of energy. Time in front of a television does little to engage their body or cognitive function. For the sake of your child’s development, make a conscious, daily decision to turn off the screens and allow your child (and yourself) to engage with the world around them. Believe me when I say I write this as much as a reminder to myself, than to any parent reading this. 

 

9. Background Noise

Rather than screen time, perhaps try to engage their auditory senses. Sometimes creating a different listening ambience can help a child feel secure enough to stop clinging to your pant leg. My toddler loves watching “Little Baby Bum.” Playing the music without the accompanying visuals not only gets her away from staring at a screen, but allows her to visualize the images in her head. Occasionally, I even catch her acting out the nursery rhymes on her own and singing along. 

Play music for yourself, too. Keep it going as you cook dinner or go about your regular household tasks. When your children see you enjoying music as you multitask, they learn to follow your example. That being said, continue to be aware when your child might be getting over stimulated, in which case, cut the music and dial down the external stimuli.

Audiobooks are another way to engage your children’s auditory senses. As they get a little older, they can learn to follow along in their book. Still, merely having the stories playing in the background as they play can help them feel not quite so solitary in their playtime. 

 

10. Keep Activities Open-ended

Give many opportunities for open-ended activities. Look for manipulatives that come with little to no ‘rules’. A bin of miscellaneous Lego or Duplo is a far better investment in your toddler’s independence than a brand new spaceship kit that comes with step by step instructions.

Step away from the flashcards! Your child does not need to know their letters and numbers before they are 4. They will have years of education. These are the days where encouraging creativity and independence are leaps and bounds more important than having them learn basic addition. Investing in their behavior and sense of empathy is a far better use of your time at this point.

Open-ended tray activities can also be an excellent way to keep the mess contained and your child engaged as they focus on what is in front of them. A quick google of “open-ended tray activities” results in a wide array of suggestions. If you don’t have a plastic tray, I use a metal cookie sheet. A couple of bowls filled with multi-colored pom-poms and spoons or tongs can be an exercise in fine motor. So is giving them pipe cleaners to poke through the holes in your kitchen colander.

***

So, here’s to a hot cup of coffee and a moment to yourself. I tip my messy bun to you in solidarity as we chase the dream of kids who will one day play independently. Kids who will eventually grow into secure and innovative adults. Adults who will ideally eventually move out of our house and into the ‘real’ world—a milestone they’ve been training for since they were small. Then, we will take warm, leisurely showers to celebrate.

But moms, there will be days where we throw our hands up and give up on the idea of a peaceful minute to ourselves. So always keep in mind: This is temporary. All of it.

Including the fingers under the door. 

 

Which of Laura’s tips encouraged or inspired you the most? What strategies or activities have you personally found to be the most helpful in fostering independent play with your children? We’d love to hear your ideas!

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1 comment
  1. I love love love this! ❤ I think allowing a child to be bored is one of the greatest gifts. I was a nanny forever and had to fight the urge to entertain (since I was paid to care for them!) and instead give the parents the gift of bored kids who create wonderful things! Now that I have a little one of my own, I appreciate the reminder. Also, background noise!! I always always forget about music haha. It’s a new, delightful discovery every time. It’s amazing what it does for any environment! Thank you!

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