Playtime is one of the best ways to encourage independence in young children. Independent play is a great way to support your toddler to develop curiosity and confidence, learn about problem-solving, and foster their abundant creativity and imagination. When kids play solo, they end up using toys or playing outside in nature in ways that we would never think of!
Here is our guide to encouraging independent play for toddlers.
What is Independent Play
Independent play is a natural stage of development. When children are given a comfortable and safe space to explore and experiment in an activity on their own, without your participation or disruption, magic happens!
At the toddler stage, solo play doesn’t mean you’re not available or present as the parent or caregiver, it means that your child’s play is not directed by you but instead open-ended, allowing your toddler to be in control, make their own decisions, and experience their own fun and its many benefits.
The Benefits of Independent Play
Play is an essential part of children’s learning. Independent play allows children to decide how they want to direct their activities and how it feels to decide for themselves, using creativity and problem-solving to reach the outcome they’ve determined.
Some of the benefits of independent play include:
- Increases independence! Playing solo allows children to explore creating their own fun and how capable they are. It also helps toddlers to begin to assert their independence, relying less on adults. It also prepares them for times without you physically there (such as beginning preschool), helping them to feel more comfortable in different situations and willing to explore new activities and make friends.
- Promotes calm. Through independent play, kids learn to self-regulate as they control how much stimulation their activity requires.
- Fosters creativity and imagination. When children play with you, a caregiver, or other children, creativity is determined by the group. Playtime with you is essential too of course, but open-ended, independent play promotes creativity as your child is unlimited and determines their own fun. When you witness your child in independent play, you will see how much more imaginative their stories and play become on their own.
- Improves problem-solving. Solo play allows kids to learn how to navigate problems independently, often with unique and wonderful solutions! Kids develop confidence in themselves and their abilities.
- Encourages curiosity. Curiosity promotes memory and learning, and through open-ended play, toddlers become more curious about what they find enjoyable, what they are good at, and the possibilities their activities may have.
- Develops self-reliance. Toddlers learn how to make their own fun, they understand they determine their own joy, entertainment, and contentment. Rather than feeling upset you’re not playing with them, they enjoy space to explore on their own.
- A benefit for parents and caregivers: Independent play also gives parents and caregivers much-needed time to care of other tasks or simply to take time for themselves. We all need a little space and downtime, and your child notices how you enjoy time alone. Plus, when you do have structured playtime with them, you can be fully present.
How Long Can Toddlers Play Independently For
How long your child will be able to play on their own depends on their age, along with other factors such as their temperament and personality. Every child is different, and it’s always a good idea to ease into independent play if it’s new for your child.
General guidelines indicate that by age two, children might play alone for up to 30 minutes. At age 3, they might be content to play alone for up to 60 minutes. If your child is new to independent play, start with 5 minutes and extend the time as they begin to get the hang of it.
The Time Timer PLUS family of visual timers are ideal for setting different durations for different stages of development with independent play.
Use the Time Timer as you build up a daily habit that becomes part of your child’s routine that they look forward to and enjoy.
5 Tips to Encourage Independent Play
1. Set the stage
If your toddler is new to independent play, start slow. Notice opportunities that allow them to begin solo play while you’re next to them, i.e. when they become absorbed in an activity, let them be rather than immediately joining in.
As you begin to integrate independent play into your daily routine, be sure to make time to be present for playtime with them daily. Giving your child your full attention and presence is also important, and when they know they also get time with you daily, they’ll become more open to solo playtime.
When it’s time for solo play, make it enjoyable. You might say, ”okay, it’s time for your playtime! I’ve set the Time Timer for 5 minutes and I’ll be right over there reading/folding laundry/sending an email. I can’t wait to hear all about your play when you’re done, have fun!”
2. Create a safe play space
Ensure the play space is safe and comfortable, and that they have what they need to get started. It’s also helpful to make sure that the toys available are developmentally appropriate… a little challenge is great, but too challenging and they will become frustrated and need your help—not conducive to independent play!
Then, let them decide what happens and how they want to play! Staying close by where they can see you as your presence will help your little one feel safe and secure while exploring new avenues of play.
3. Try not to interfere
Allow your child to express themselves however they like and control their experience without commenting or interrupting their flow. This allows them to gain confidence in their capabilities and determine what’s next on their own. If they look to you for encouragement, praise their effort rather than any outcome, for example, “I see you’re working hard on that!”.
4. Embrace boredom
Boredom leads to creativity! You can encourage your child to have fun determining what’s next, or you might help them if solo play is new by offering them a choice, for example “would you like to play with your blocks or your rescue vehicles next?”
5. Talk about their experiences
After the Time Timer is up and they’re done playing, engage with your child about their experience. They will likely be very proud of what they’ve done and be thrilled to show you what they created, further encouraging them to play solo in the future.
Ideas for Independent Play
Once your child gets the hang of independent play, the opportunities become endless! To help them get started, here are some toys and activities that tend to be open-ended and have multiple uses to encourage solo playtime:
- Vehicle toys
- Building blocks, Magnatiles, Duplo
- Play kitchen, or your real kitchen (you can organize one or two cabinets that are 100% safe for play)
- Dress up
- Cleaning toys
- Outdoors: playgrounds, building with nature’s bounty (sticks, leaves, rocks), mud kitchens
Play is a natural and vital part of children’s development. We don’t need to teach kids how to play, but we can support them by providing safe spaces to explore and experiment with toys and activities that allow them to be imaginative. Have fun!