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How to Encourage Your Child to Play Independently in 3 Easy Steps

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With 3 daughters, you can bet there are times when my wife and I need a break. But we see it all the time with our friends as well. So we’ve wondered how to encourage your child to play independently.

Here’s what we’ve learned, both as parents and educators:

Set clear boundaries, but provide assurances that you are still there. Allow them to explore and occasionally get hurt. Your job is not to protect them completely, but to know what risks are acceptable. After all, if they never make mistakes, they will never learn from them and will always be reliant on you.

So, in this post, we’re taking a look at how we can raise strong, confident, independent kids. We’ll look at the science behind the concept too.

But specifically, we’ll examine the best ways of how to encourage your child to play independently.

That way you’re setting your kids up for success in life, and ensuring your own sanity in the process.

Co-authored with Craig Middleton

Why is independent play important?

We all know we need to be teaching our kids to be independent, confident, and resilient.

But all too often we, as parents, take the easiest route after our long, hard days. Sometimes that’s shoving a screen in their hands. And sometimes that’s doing everything for them.

However, research has revealed that most children become more creative during their boring times. That’s the time they come up with games and the wildest stories ever.

As such, children need a certain kind of boredom to discover the power of their imagination. We also need our own downtime and we’ll never get it if we’re entertaining them 24/7.

Some of the proven benefits of independent play include:

  • Building a foundation of learning
  • Fosters increased creativity and imagination
  • They feel more comfortable being alone
  • Reduces boredom
  • Builds social independence
  • Helps kids understand how to better self-regulate

Many a parent with a huge to-do list has heard the cries from their child wanting you to play with them.

Don’t get me wrong. I want you to play with your kids.

But if you never leave their side and they never get comfortable being alone and finding ways to entertain themselves you’re setting them up for failure in life.

You are also creating a huge burden for yourself.

So let there be times where they have to play alone. Allow them to get bored and to figure out what to do.

Dr. Teresa Belton, visiting fellow at the University of East Anglia claims that “boredom is crucial for developing “internal stimulus,” which then allows true creativity.”

How do I encourage my child to play independently?

Play is under-rated in our society today.

Look around and you’ll see droves of pre-teens glued to screens. Screens are great! You’re obviously reading this on one.

But like anything else, there needs to be a balance.

So your first step in learning how to encourage your child to play independently and encourage them to just play (off electronics) is to set clear boundaries.

Have designated screen time each day as well as 1 weekend day that is mostly screen-free.

If you haven’t been setting limits, you’ll likely get a lot of pushback. Be strong, be consistent, and model the behavior yourself.

As they grow comfortable finding alternative ways to have fun, they will naturally be more outgoing, more independent, and you’ll likely see long-term attitude improvement too.

Not convinced? Check out all the ways Technology Affects the Brain Negatively in one of my recent posts. Just click the link to read it.

What really surprised me was the direct impact technology has on depression and suicidal throughts when overused.

Is it OK to let toddler play alone?

I (Jeff) have an almost 2 year old. So I can tell you that the answer to this question depends on a few things.

  • Do you have your house baby proofed
  • Are there baby gates at the stair entrances
  • Can they open doors yet?

Don’t get me wrong. I do want you to let your toddler have independent play time. But unlike a 5 year old, we have to take extra precautions with a toddler, and the alone time is likely going to be much shorter.

But a certain amount of alone time is critical for toddlers (and often the parents too!)

Independent play strengthens their sense of identity and confidence. And when they go out into the neighborhood, pre-K, or other places where they will meet other kids, your child will make friends because they want to and not out of fear of being alone.

But for starters, don’t just leave the room and hope they figure it out. Understand that how long they can be alone depends greatly on their age.  Here’s a general guideline:

6 Months 5 minutes
1 Year 10-15 minutes
18 Months 20 minutes
2 Years 30 minutes

Of course, when they are “alone” you want to make sure you are nearby and can hear what’s going on. Use common sense, and always make sure your child’s safety is top of mind.

Just balance that with knowing that independent play is almost as critical as physical safety.

How do I get my toddler to be more independent?

Babies are obviously a little different than toddlers and pre-teens.

They need to be encouraged to play independently in a safe environment and they need that reassurance that mom or dad isn’t too far away.

So start by giving your child a little alone time every day so it’s not a surprise and becomes part of their routine. Do check in and let them know where you are and what you are doing.

Even if they are only just starting to communicate it’s important that we begin to talk to them so they can start to understand.

If they get fussy, avoid getting mad but also avoid just letting them cry it out.

Reassure them. Play fun games like peekaboo and then return to your tasks. Do make sure the baby has some stimulating toys to play with or some favorite age-appropriate books to flip through. If you’re on the hunt for the best educational toys for your child to keep them busy, visit this page.

If you give in to every cry, you are literally programming them to need you 100% of the time. That behavior will carry on as they get older. They will slowly learn the hard way to be self-reliant and you’ll find yourself exhausted.

So now let’s review the 3 easy steps on . . .

How to Encourage Your Child to Play Independently

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1. Embrace Old School Parenting

Over time, parenting has changed significantly, and these changes haven’t made it any easier either.

A decade ago, electronic games such as Nintendo and Atari were available, but parents never told their kids to come off of them.

Instead, children had much better things to spend their time on than sitting all day playing electronic games.

However, today’s parents have to wage mental warfare with their children over how long will they play PlayStation games.

Many parents now think it may be time to step back to old-school parenting methods such as these Authoritative Parenting Examples (click the link to read my post which details the worst ones).

Authoritative parenting lets children learn to entertain and play on their own.

It’s not neglectful, but it does allow for personal freedom and responsibility with the kids and ultimately prepares them better for the real world.

It’s time for parents to throw away their guilty feelings, stop judging their kids, and let them play with the neighbors and reign in the electronics and extracurricular activities.

When you do that, you’ve just taken your first step in learning how to encourage your child to play independently.

Parents should buy their kids toys for imaginary play

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A great place to look for toys is FatBrain Toys. They have categories for babies through teens, and also by gender so you can find individualized toys that your kids will love.

Some ideas of great toys that kids can grow their imagination with are objects kids can build with:

  • Musical instruments such as a drum
  • Stacking trees to create new tree shapes that can aid in learning shape and color variations
  • Arts & crafts such as non-toxic crayons

Furthermore, toys that are free from sound effects and lights can help engage kids instead of entertaining them passively.

That helps to develop the imagination and creativity of a child so that they can amuse themselves even without toys.

But check out all the best Sensory Toys and why they are essential in one of my newer posts on this site!

2. Create Designated Spaces For Play

If you can keep toys separated, it’s much easier to help your kids learn to play games on their own.

By creating individual spaces for different types of play, your children will be able to play with all sorts of games.

Make a separate action figure/dolls areas, reading areas, art areas, lego areas, or “kitchen” areas.

Be creative. Think of your kids and what they love.

For an action figure area, consider using wall ledges to display and store your child’s collections.

This is especially great for small toy rooms with limited space since wall ledges can raise the items up and still give play space below.

Using picture frame ledges for reading areas is also a great solution–especially for small spaces– since the thinner ledge profiles don’t stick out into the room as far as bookshelves do.

Also instead of book spines sticking outward, with picture frame ledges, the book covers are visible so kids who can’t read will know exactly which book they’re getting–no more piles of pulled-out books strewn across the floor.

There are so many fun ideas for making designated play areas in your toy room, which will help your kids learn to play on their own!

Just check out my Pinterest’s Parenting Tips Board and you’ll be flooded with possibilities!

3. Give Your Kids Time Alone

It’s natural for every parent to want to spend their limited time entertaining and playing with their kids.

However, it’s also crucial to give children a little time alone with their playmates or siblings every day.

Over time, the child will discover that they don’t always need their parents around them. Even when parents are at home, they should be accessible to their kids. But neither parent nor child should feel like the parent has to be part of everything going on.

That is key to learning how to encourage your child to play independently.

For example, keep yourself busy with activities such as writing down a to-do-list or reading a novel as the kid plays, as this signals to them that the parent isn’t available for play.

This strategy works well for children that can’t be safe when left alone.

Giving children freedom within their limits and a bit of space to play helps them discover the power of their imagination through creative games.

While it may take time and a few adjustments to shape your child’s behavior, it will be worth it when their independence, imagination, and creativity soar.

Martial arts are another way to foster independence, focus, and confidence with kids.

It’s not about learning how to hit, it’s about giving your child the tools to be happy with who they are and to learn how to work through challenging situations without getting angry or giving up.

But not every martial arts school is a good one.

So if you think martial arts might help in your process of learning how to encourage your child to play independently, check out the Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Martial Arts School for your child.

Just click the link to read that now on my site.

4. Don’t Respond Immediately

As long as the kid is safe, parents should avoid responding to them right away.

Maybe imagination has confused the kid, and now he or she wants you to play. Instead, tell the kid you’re almost ready or assure them your availability once your work is done.

Parents often use electronic gadgets to keep their kids entertained, especially when they’re busy cooking for them.

However, there are proven Benefits of Limiting Screen Time. See all of them, including 1 that really surprised me, in one of my recent articles on this site.

Instead of screen time all the time, show them other ways to keep themselves engaged.

For example, parents can take turns to discuss movies or come up with exciting stories about the surrounding things.

A parent with more than one kid can come up with an interesting debate and then back out so that the kids are left debating alone.

Children learn from watching their parents interact with each other and do things around the house. So to learn how to encourage your child to play independently, make sure and include them in family discussions, but you don’t always have to lead or be part of them.

Nothing is wrong with a parent working while their kids play nearby.

Keeping yourself busy doesn’t mean you’re ignoring the kids; instead, you want to show them how adults behave and welcome them into your world.

Did we cover all you wanted to know about how to encourage your child to play independently?

In this post, we looked at the choices we parents face every day with trying to navigate when and how to support and grow our kids.

We strive to balance between keeping them safe and allowing them the freedom to learn, grow, and yes; get hurt and make mistakes.

Ultimately, we looked at the best ways that we can learn how to encourage your child to play independently.

When we teach them the valuable skills of confidence, resilience, and independence, we are setting them up to be successful when we are around. But more importantly when we aren’t around.

We parents also might get a small break in the process! What has been your biggest parenting challenge?

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About the co-author of this post:

how to encourage your child to play independently Craig Middleton headshot Middle Class DadCraig Middleton graduated from UC Berkely with a bachelors degree in marketing. He works as a business consultant for InnovateBTS.

As busy as he is with his career, Craig is a single dad and has made his family a priority and has found creative ways to give them the time they deserve.

Whenever possible, he writes about his experiences and shares them to help others.

Want to write for Middle Class Dad too? Check out everything you need to know on my Guest Blog Page.

Jeff Campbell