How to Encourage Independent Play in Children: A Comprehensive Guide for 2023

how to encourage independent play

It’s time to sit down and pull out the bills and immediately your 2-year-old acts totally helpless and instantly needs you to get them a snack, a drink of water, or to help them save their teddy bear before it drops into a river of lava! It never seems to fail that children often want their parent’s attention most when their parent is clearly in the middle of an important task.

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore what independent play is, why it is crucial for your child’s development, some ideas for independent play activities, and how to encourage independent play even if your child is initially resistant. 

We will also provide step-by-step instructions and key considerations to help you successfully foster independent play in your child.

When we get into a good routine for having our boys play independently it is so wonderful! We can get things done around the house and our kids feel so much more confident when they have the chance to feel independent and accomplish things on their own!

The trouble is, how do you get your kids to play independently? Honestly, it can be really hard sometimes and there can be resistance. We have had days where our kids just want to hang all over us or terrorize the house instead. Luckily, we have learned a few strategies over the years that make life much easier.  

Quick takeaways!

8 Easy Steps to Encourage Independent Play

  • Start Early!
  • Create a safe environment
  • Provide age-appropriate toys
  • Set a Routine
  • Lead by example
  • Gradual transitions
  • Respect their choices
  • Provide feedback

10 Great Independent Play Activity Ideas

  • Building with blocks
  • Arts and crafts
  • Pretend play
  • Reading
  • Puzzles
  • Outdoor exploration
  • Board games
  • Sensory play
  • Music and dance
  • Subscription boxes

How to Encourage Independent Play in Children

Now that we understand the importance of independent play let’s explore strategies to encourage this behavior in your child. It’s worth noting that some children may readily take to independent play, while others might be resistant. Sometimes our 5-year-old can only play independently for like 5 minutes before starting to get us to do something with him while our 3-year-old and 1-year-old can play independently for hours! In either case, the following techniques can help you foster this skill:

Step-by-Step Instructions to Teach Your Child How to Independently Play

1. Start Early

Baby reaching for toys

Begin introducing independent play at a young age, even as early as infancy. Infants can engage in solo activities such as exploring colorful toys or listening to soothing music.

Read more about independent play by age in our post

After having multiple children we realized that we missed the boat on this step with our first. We gave our oldest SOOO much attention and constantly played with him, which has made it so much more difficult for him to play independently now that he is older. Our younger two boys on the other hand have gotten so much more independent play time because we can’t give them the same 24/7 attention we gave our oldest. 

Don’t feel guilty letting your child play independently, it is good for them. Even short 15 minutes of independent play can go a long way! Don’t be like us and miss out on the benefits early! 

2. Create a Safe Environment

Ensure your home is safe and create a child-friendly play area. Childproof that area to minimize potential hazards, allowing your child to play independently without constant supervision.

Childproofing your home, especially the area where you will encourage independent play is so important. It not only ensures your child’s safety it also helps your sanity so you aren’t hovering like a helicopter to make sure they aren’t getting into things they aren’t supposed to. 

Being a helicopter parent defeats the purpose of independent play for your kids. Not to mention now you can’t utilize that time to get some things done around the house! 

Prep beforehand and create a safe environment!

3. Provide Age-Appropriate Toys

boy playing with toys

Offer toys and activities that are suitable for your child’s age and developmental stage. These should be engaging and challenging but not overly complex.

For our 1-year-old we like giving him things such as animal figurines, stuffed animals, trucks, blocks, and toys with music!

For our 3-year-old we like giving him trucks, blocks, balls, play food, tools, and train sets.

For our 5-year-old we like giving him Magformers, art supplies, and books. Our oldest loves creating things and one of his favorite quiet time activities is to make something new with random items around the house. It’s amazing what simple things like cardboard boxes can do to help kids learn to be imaginative!

We are HUGE proponents of books for our kids and we have hundreds of books from baby board books to educational books for school-aged kids! Our boys often will sit down and just look at (our 5-year-old is starting to read) books on their own! 

One great new toy we have gotten for our boys to encourage independent play is a Storypod! It is a kid’s audio player that is super interactive, fun, and educational! Best of all it’s screen-free!

4. Set a Routine

Establish a consistent daily routine that includes designated independent playtime. Having a predictable schedule helps children feel secure and understand when to expect solo play.

We have found it is so much more likely for our boys to play independently, or do anything we encourage for that matter when we have a set routine!

Our boys thrive with consistency! They love being warned ahead of time what to expect and having a routine helps them feel confident and safe because they know what is part of our daily schedule! 

Also, routines create great habits for your children! Pretty soon they will be playing independently without you ever having to say a word! 

5. Lead by Example

mom playing with son

Show your child how to play independently by engaging in your own activities. Be a role model, and they will likely follow your lead. 

If you haven’t noticed yet, your kids mirror everything you do! Sometimes we wonder where my kids heard such a funny phrase from, then we realize we say that all the time! 

Kids will follow your example! 

We have set goals together as a family and individually, and we often call our independent play time goal time where we all do something to work on our goals! This has been so amazing for us!

6. Gradual Transition

If your child is resistant to independent play, start with short periods of solo play and gradually increase the duration as they become more comfortable.

Also, realize that every child is different and will do better with a personally tailored independent play. 

We have worked up to an hour of independent play a day. 

7. Provide Feedback

woman playing with girl

Offer praise and encouragement when your child engages in independent play successfully. Positive reinforcement can motivate them to continue this behavior.

Avoid using labels or praise when celebrating your kids’ success. For example, don’t say “You are such a great artist.”  Instead point out something they put effort into that led to their success like “I can tell you worked very hard on that, great job!” This will instead help create internal motivation, a valuable lesson we learned from Positive Parenting Solutions

8. Respect Their Choices

Allow your child to choose their activities during independent play. This gives them a sense of ownership and control over their playtime.

Think about it, if you told your kid what they are going to do during independent play then really it’s not “independent” play. 

Giving your kids choices as much as possible helps empower your children. They will be more likely to make choices on their own when you want them to instead of constantly relying on you for everything.

It helps them create a sense of identity! 

What is Independent Play?

boy playing with dinosaurs

Independent play, often referred to as solo play, involves children engaging in activities or games on their own, without the direct involvement or supervision of adults or peers. Independent play can take various forms, including imaginative play with toys, reading, drawing, and even physical activities like building with blocks or climbing. Since we have 3 boys in our home there is a lot of building (afterwards destroying) and climbing! 

Independent play is not only an opportunity for children to entertain themselves, but also a vital tool to encourage independence and in enhancing development. During these solo play sessions, children can explore their interests, experiment with their creativity, and develop essential life skills like self-motivation! It is always so neat to watch our boys accomplish something on their own and see their beaming little faces as they show off what they did! 

Reasons You Need to Know About Independent Play

A parent-child relationship must have quality time together each day where parents give undivided attention to their child, however, it is also important that children learn solitary play. Independent play holds a central place in a child’s development for various reasons. Understanding these reasons can help you appreciate the significance and guide you in nurturing these skills in your child.

Enhances Creativity

child doing imaginative play

Independent play encourages children to think creatively. They come up with their own stories, scenarios, and solutions to problems, stimulating their imagination and creative thinking. 

Builds Problem-Solving Skills

child playing with shapes

When children play independently, they face challenges and obstacles that require them to find solutions on their own. Our boys initially would want to just have us fix their problem, but we would tell them things like, “You can do hard things” or “I believe in you”, and they embrace the opportunity to problem solve more often now.

Boosts Self-Confidence

Accomplishing tasks and resolving issues independently bolsters a child’s self-esteem. They become more self-assured, knowing they can handle situations on their own.

This can be a tough skill at first because children will just want to give up! With consistency, they will start to develop confidence in themselves, which is a gift for life!

Develops Independence

As the name suggests, independent play nurtures independence. Children learn to rely on themselves, which is a crucial life skill. 

Let’s be honest, little toddlers crave independence anyway! Our 3-year-old is constantly saying to everything “No let me do it myself!” 

Independence helps them feel significant!

Fosters Focus and Patience

boy stacking blocks

Independent play teaches children to focus on a task and be patient. This ability to sustain attention is beneficial in academics and other areas of life.

We can all use a little extra patience! If our kids our learning patience it will help our entire home be so much more peaceful! More peace? Yes, please! 

Promotes Social Development

This one almost seems paradoxical. While independent play doesn’t involve interaction with others, it still plays a part in social development. Children learn to understand their own feelings, desires, and interests, which contributes to their ability to navigate social situations.

Helping your children develop emotional intelligence will pay dividends for them throughout their lives in their schooling, careers, and relationships! 

Key Considerations for Successfully Encouraging Your Child to Independent Play

children watching kids play

To ensure your efforts in encouraging independent play are successful, consider the following key factors:

Limit Screen Time

Reduce screen time and electronic device usage, which can hinder the development of independent play. Encourage more traditional forms of play that foster creativity and imagination.

The more kids are being active, using their hands and imagination, the more you will see them learn. 

Be Patient and Supportive

Understand that every child is unique, and the journey to independent play may vary. Be patient and supportive, even if your child faces initial resistance.

If you get frustrated constantly then your kids will grow to dislike independent play. If mom is always mad when children do independent play then they definitely won’t want to do that activity! 

Age-Appropriate Expectations

dad playing with daughter

Recognize that the ability to engage in independent play varies with age. Younger children may require more guidance and supervision.

The more you do independent play the more natural it will become for your child. 

Avoid Over-Scheduling

Don’t overschedule your child’s day with structured activities. Leave room for unstructured playtime to foster independence and creativity!

Respect Boundaries

Respect your child’s need for alone time. Avoid interrupting them during independent play unless necessary.

Flexibility

Be flexible and open to adapting your approach based on your child’s interests and needs. What works for one child may not work for another.

Understand that your routine and schedule may have to be adjusted in some situations like traveling. It is okay to occasionally not do your usual routine. For example when we go to our parent’s homes sometimes we don’t even do independent play because they are spending time with grandparents and cousins. 

If you are flexible it will help teach your child to be flexible! 

Peer Play

kids playing together

We have found that quality peer play can help our boys be better independent players as well!

Encourage opportunities for peer play, as this can complement independent play. Social interactions are crucial for development, and children can learn a lot from playing with others. Just as important as it is for children to learn how to play independently, it is also important they are given plenty of opportunities to have social interactions and playtime with their peers!

Top 10 Independent Play Activities for Children

Now that we’ve covered the fundamentals of encouraging independent play, let’s explore a list of 10 independent play activities we love for our children:

  1. Building with BlocksBoy with blocks

Offer a variety of building blocks, such as LEGOs or wooden blocks, for open-ended creative play.

As mentioned earlier, we love Magformers for our boys! They are blocks with magnets and are a huge hit in our home!

  1. Arts and CraftsKids making craft

Provide art supplies like paper, colored pencils, markers, and craft materials for drawing, painting, and crafting that will be easily accessible for your child.

One thing we have done that has worked wonders, especially for our oldest, was providing our boys with their own craft drawer. We bought plastic storage drawers that we filled with paper, tape, stickers, crayons, colored pencils, and various other art supplies. This is our boys’ craft drawers that they have free rein to and don’t have to ask us to use any of it! This helps empower them as well as decrease the number of times they make a cool paper airplane out of your important documents! 

  1. Pretend PlayBoy playing pretend

Set up a play kitchen, doctor’s kit, or dress-up costumes for imaginative role-play scenarios.

This encourages them to learn new interests and talents, and even set goals about what they may want to do when they grow up! 

Our boys, especially our 3-year-old, absolutely loves our play kitchen and play food! He is always making us soup with very interesting ingredients! 

We have also made some pretty elaborate forts out of cardboard with our boys that they decorated and played in for hours! 

Make sure to engage with your children and step into their world of imagination and adventure either before or after giving them a dose of independent play. This will help you connect with your child on their level and further their growth and development!

  1. ReadingBoy reading

Build a library of age-appropriate books and encourage your child to explore stories independently.

We cannot stress enough how huge this activity is! Books open the door to endless knowledge and creativity! We encourage reading in our home constantly. We read with our kids every day and encourage them to read on their own (or at least look at books if they are not reading yet) every day as well. Our boys have developed a love for books! 

To really encourage reading, you even create a little reading nook for your kids to have a special place to jump into their books!

As mentioned earlier, one thing we recently got for our boys is a Storypod! Allows kids to listen to stories and music, follow along in books, do trivia and other educational games. This audio player is a great screen-free activity!

  1. PuzzlesGirl playing

Offer jigsaw puzzles and age-appropriate brain teasers to challenge your child’s problem-solving skills. Puzzles can help your kids focus as well!

Our 5-year-old is really starting to like this activity and will engage him for long periods of time.

This can also be a great family activity! 

  1. Outdoor ExplorationBoy digging

Let your child explore the outdoors, whether it’s in your backyard, at the park, or on nature walks.

This is huge! Our bodies need to have a regular dose of sunlight. It helps our mood and our immune system! The upcoming generation is exposed so much to technology and seems to be given fewer and fewer opportunities to explore and discover outside of screens. Make this activity a priority in your home! We have seen major behavior improvements when our boys spend less time in front of a screen and more time outdoors!

Allowing kids to play outside is a great way to keep them active and healthy both mentally and physically! 

We have a playset that we bought and put together ourselves. Our kids are constantly playing on it! It is so nice to just open the back door and send them outside to play! We also have a trampoline that lets our very active boys release their energy on! Going on walks is also an excellent activity outside and to do as a family.

  1. Board GamesKids playing games

Introduce board games that are suitable for your child’s age, promoting strategic thinking and focus.

You would be surprised just how smart your kids are when you start playing board games with them! Once they get the hang of certain board games, they can play on their own or with siblings or friends during independent play and grow leaps and bounds with their critical thinking skills. 

One of our 3-year-old’s favorite games is called Pizza Pizza. This is a game that teaches shapes and colors as you build a pizza. Perfect for his age.

Our 5-year-old loves a game called Outfoxed. This is a cooperative strategy game and our son has really floored us with how well he can strategize!

  1. Sensory PlaySand bucket

Create sensory bins with items like sensory balls, needle boards, or droppers. 

Engaging your child’s sensory system can be very calming, especially if your child is very hyper or likes a lot of hard sensory input like jumping and climbing. We have a calming corner with all sorts of sensory activities for our boys and they love them!

We even have a small indoor trampoline for our boys that helps them get energy out in an appropriate way instead of jumping on the couch or off our TV stand! 

Another sensory toy our boys love is called Kinetic Sand! It is like a mix of sand and play dough but less messy than both of them! This activity will entertain your child for hours while also providing the ability to be imaginative and creative.

  1. Music and Dance

Encourage your child to experiment with musical instruments or simply dance to their favorite tunes.

This is one of our boys’ favorite activities! Music helps stimulate the brain and dancing is a great way for your kids to learn how to be coordinated with their bodies! 

We will bring Storypod up again because it is a great tool for providing wholesome music for your kids to listen to and dance to!

After independent play, we like to do family dance parties too!

  1. Subscription boxesBoy creating robot

A subscription box provides monthly activities for your kids sent to you in the mail! KiwiCo is a great example of a subscription box. 

Kids love these because they get something in the mail that are super fun activities and experiments they can do on their own while also providing a learning opportunity for your child!

All kinds of age-appropriate activity options are available and include things like building a wood plane from a provided kit or making a volcano explode!

Taking it to the Next Level: How to go beyond encouraging your child to independent play.  

dad and son playing

Encouraging independent play is a crucial aspect of a child’s development, but to go beyond simply encouraging it, parents can take a more proactive role. To foster a child’s self-sufficiency and creativity, engage in collaborative play sessions where you participate in their imaginative world, offering guidance but allowing them to lead. 

Support their interests by providing resources, whether that’s art supplies, books, or science kits. Emphasize open communication, where children feel comfortable discussing their feelings, ideas, and experiences. 

Promote problem-solving skills by posing challenges and encouraging them to find solutions. 

Ultimately, it’s about being a partner in their journey, nurturing independence while providing the guidance and resources they need to thrive.

Alternatives to Independent Play for Children

Collaborative Play

kids painting together

Collaborative play involves children engaging in activities with peers or adults. It fosters social interaction, teamwork, and the development of communication and negotiation skills. Children learn to share, compromise, and work together, which are vital life skills. This alternative is especially beneficial for enhancing social development.

Guided Play

Guided play is a structured form of play where an adult or older child provides some direction or guidance while allowing the child to maintain a degree of independence. It strikes a balance between independent play and adult-led activities, promoting learning and skill development while still allowing the child some autonomy.

Often we will do activities as a family where we determine the activity but allow the kids to have independence on how we do certain aspects. These turn into great family bonding moments! 

Educational Screen Time

While limiting screen time is important, educational apps, games, and videos can be valuable tools when used in moderation. These resources can provide interactive learning experiences that help children acquire new knowledge and skills. The key is to choose age-appropriate and educational content.

Some of our favorites include PBS Kids shows (especially Wild Kratts and Curious George), and leapfrog movies like Letter Factory! 

Outdoor Playdates

kids playing outside

Organizing outdoor playdates with friends or other children allows kids to engage in both physical and social activities. They can play games, explore nature, and develop social bonds while under the supervision of responsible adults. Outdoor playdates encourage physical activity, which is essential for a child’s health.

Plus you as the parents get to have some adult interaction with the parents of your child’s friends. That is soooo needed as a stay-at-home parent!

Structured Activities and Classes

Enrolling your child in structured activities and classes, such as sports, arts, or music lessons, provides them with opportunities for organized learning and interaction with peers. These activities often have adult guidance but still allow children to explore their interests and passions.

It’s important to note that while these alternatives offer valuable opportunities for children, they should be balanced with independent play to promote well-rounded development. Finding the right mix that suits your child’s age, interests, and needs is key to nurturing their growth and independence.

Wrapping Up and Our Experience

boy is superhero

We seriously love independent play in our home! We have seen our kids grow in their reasoning and problem-solving skills! We have seen them learn to overcome failure and work through hard things! 

It is so rewarding as a parent to hear our 3-year-old say “Mom, I worked hard and told myself I could do it and it worked!” Now that’s a win!!!!

Not only is it great for our kids, but it’s great for us as parents! Having time to work on something you want to or even have time to clean or work around the house is like gold! It helps refresh you and makes you a better parent! It’s a win-win!

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