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How to Teach Independent Play to Your Child

It's a good time for teaching your kids to play on their own, and besides, it's a skill that will benefit them all of their lives.

Our current culture is friendlier to playtime than it used to be. We all know now that playtime is learning time and that for young children play and learning are interchangable. But what do you do if you’re at home and always having a little one clamoring for you to play with him? Teach him to play on his own!  While research emphasizes the importance of play to a child’s development, it doesn’t mean that you always have to play with your child — in fact, you shouldn’t. With a few tools, you can teach your kids to play more independently, for benefits that will last a life time.
“It’s a bit of a paracox, but independence and exploration are not the opposite of dependence, safety and security,” says Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., author of Playful Parenting. Cohen says that if you want your kids to feel strong enough to play on their own, it’s a matter of starting each day with some really high-quality play together and then to draw yourself away. Start with 15 minutes and go from there.
Many experts say kids benefit from unsupervised play. In a study out of University College London, research showed that unsupervised playtime makes children more social and active. And, according to an article from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, unsupervised free plays helps kids develop important skills like creative thinking, analyzing patterns, using empathy, regulating emotions and more. Pediatricians say that independent free play is necessary for children to develop into healthy, happy well-adjusted people later in life.
This in no way negates the importance of playing with siblings and friends, however. Solo play just needs to be a part of the mix in your child’s life.
Kids need to be able to play without an adult directing them because that’s the way children learn. In between all of the messages parents get about how screens and tablets and phones and laptops are the answer that’s going to help children learn and become advanced in their development is this truth: Imaginative play is where the real magic of learning happens. Playtime is an indispensable tool in a child’s tool box say authors Kristine Mraz, Alison Porcelli and Cheryl Tyler in their book Purposeful Play: A Teacher’s Guide to Igniting Deep and Joyful Learning Across the Day .


While many parents believe that they should constantly play with their children, that actually can create stress — and your child can pick up on it, says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek in the book Einstein Never Used Flash Cards . Here’s how to help your child learn to play on his own (and it’s a wonderful gift!)

1) Show Him How It’s Done

Begin by showing your child how fun solo playtime it can be. Being alone is a learned behavior to some extent, so you have to get it started. When your child is 6 months old, you can place him in a playpen with a few toys when he’s up and wakeful and fed and leave the door open so he can see you. Rattles, stacking rings and other easy-to-hold items can entertain a baby this age for up to 20 minutes, says Hirsh-Pasek. Keep building on this as your child grows. When your child is a toddler, talk about how much you enjoy doing things on your own and send him the message that doing things on your own is a wonderful thing. Build on it by playing with him a little bit each day right after breakfast (so he can count on it; or another set time that works best for you). Plan on 15 – 20 minutes at a time (no phones!) then find a good moment to say, “I love playing with you! Now Mama has to do something for our house (or some such) and we’ll play again soon. I love how you play by yourself, too.”

2) Create Secure, Safe Play Areas in Your Home and Yard

The best way to spark your child’s solo endeavors is to make spaces where you can encourage experimentation. It doesn’t have to be a whole room — even a drawer filled with tupperware can be a treasured play spot. Kid-space essentials include building blocks and other building toys, costumes, crayons, paper plates and other crafty supplies, puppets, dolls and more. Set up little areas that are fun for both of you. Use your imagination so it’s interesting for you!

3) Keep Them Occupied

When you see that your child has a particular affinity for an activity, encourage it. If your child loves playing with toy dinosaurs, supplement that with dinosaur stories. The key to keeping your child occupied on his own is to provide him items that encourage it.

4) Allow Messiness

You have to give in to the fact that children left alone to play will sometimes make a mess. You know that moment in your home when the house gets too silent and you just know your child must be getting into something? It’s THIS sort of thing that you’re after, only, find other ways besides letting a child scribble on your walls. Perhaps cover them with draw-on wall paper?

5) Stay on the Sidelines

Teaching your child to play independenty takes time, and besides, you don’t want to remove yourself entirely from what he’s doing, or you might miss something! The goal is not to shut your child out but to give your child wings. By all means, if your child rejects your attempts to leave, give it more time.



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About the Author

Susan Swindell Day

Susan Day is the editor in chief for this award-winning publication and all-things Nashville Parent digital creative. She's also an Equity actress, screenwriter and a mom of four amazing kids.