And what activities will help them learn to play on their own!

Teaching independent play in toddlers and pre-schoolers is a vital skill. It helps their confidence and resilience, helps their brains develop and teaches them about problem solving.

It all starts in infancy

I made a big mistake when my first born was little. Like lots of new mums, I had just left a busy full-time job to go on maternity leave. I had a cranky little baby and it felt like endless hours of the day to fill.

I was under the impression that it was my job as a mum to entertain my baby all day long. So I did. I lay with her on the mat playing with toys, I read her countless stories and I’d chat to her all day long.

None of this stuff is wrong, in fact I’m sure it’s what has made my now four-year-old daughter such a chatterbox with a love of reading!

However, I never just let her be. I didn’t give her a chance to play on her own without my involvement. And now she finds playing on her own really difficult.

Why it’s important a child learns to play on their own

Encouraging independent play is not just about parents wanting more time for themselves.

According to clinical psychologist Michael Hawkin from Parentshop, independent play is also vital for their future learning.

“Children learn through play and they set up neural pathways as they play. If we’re wired to want to learn, which toddlers and young children all are, then we can use independent play activities to help them to explore and to solve problems,” he explained.

So when should we start it? Children seek out new experiences from the time they’re born so independent play can be encouraged right from the beginning.

According to Michael: “The trick is matching up the child’s ability with the difficulty of a play activity.”

A baby of a few months old might like a minute or two of kicking at a mobile. As they get older they could be given a plastic or wooden toy to handle.

How do you introduce independent play to a toddler

If you’re like me and didn’t start this independent play education at birth, you’re probably wondering whether all hope is lost?!

Not at all, according to parenting and anxiety specialist Renee Mill. However, children who are used to being entertained need to be weaned slowly.

“You literally start with two or three minutes where you say something like, “I need to get a tissue, I’ll be back by the time my alarm beeps.” (Set a timer for two minutes) and then you go and come back when the alarm goes off and give them a smile or a hug. After doing this for two minutes a few times, increase it to three minutes and repeat,” she said.

Renee cautioned that it’s important to progress this slowly as sometimes the cause of the issue could be insecurity.

How do you introduce independent play to a preschooler

Michael Hawkin says there’s lots of ways of getting an older child used to independent play. He has the following tips:

  1. “Make the activity suitable for the child’s age. Many of the manufacturers have already sought this advice, and they’ll describe on the packaging what age the toys or game is suitable for.
  2. “Competency builds confidence – and so if kids get good at a skill, like colouring in, you may need to teach, show or demonstrate the skill needed to do that, first.
  3. “You might need to sit with them to get them started to play independently but then wean yourself away. “Mummy has to do some things in the kitchen for a while, but can you keep drawing for me?”.
  4. “If your child says ‘I’m bored’, don’t always try to fill the void. Maybe set up a list on the fridge to get them thinking about how to solve their ‘boredom’ problems.”

What are some good activities that encourage independent play?

I’ve been working on my daughter’s independent play for a while now and it’s definitely improved. However, I do think that it’s part of her personality to want my presence and reassurance.

I’ve found that she’s much better at playing independently when she can do something creative, like colour in, paint, or listen to audiobooks (and act out the stories!).

She also really enjoys lego, dolls and other imaginary play activities like the kitchen. However, I find it hard for her to start on her own so I now sit there for a few minutes, then walk away for a minute or two. It’s been a slow process but there definitely has been an improvement!

What types of independent play activities work in your house? Let us know in the comments section below!