10 Ways to Teach Independent Play

One of the things I’m often asked about is how do I teach independent play. My kids play very well by themselves and with each other and I am able to do a lot of things.

Here are ten of the ways that I encourage independent play:

1- The more rules an environment has the more help a child will need. A child in a room full of “don’t touch, don’t climb, that’s dangerous, don’t jump, here play with just this toy”.. Will need a lot of parental involvement and guidance. A child in a room where they can jump, climb, play, make messes, and use toys and other things in ways that those things may or may not have been intended for? Will need much less parental involvement.

2- When there is a RIGHT way to play you will have to be a participant. If your child wants to push around a rubber dish washing glove in the doll stroller while carrying a spatula in a reusable grocery bag on her back and you keep showing her that the toy stroller is for dolls and that she has a backpack that you bought her? She will need your help to “play the right way”. If you let her play HER way and push that rubber glove around and smile and say “backpack!” in the same enthusiastic tone of voice that she is using? She will push that rubber glove around in circles around the house for an hour while you wash the dishes. A child wants to use an old siphon for the fish tank to transfer water from the wheelbarrow that got caught in the rain to the ground? He wants to use a barbie doll as a jousting sword to slay dragons? Let them. They are going to be much more engaged in the games that have captured their imagination then they are going to be in your modified adult versions.

3- There are multiple ways to “keep a child safe”. You can teach them not to climb on things that they want to climb on. You can help them climb on those things safely. And you can spot them while they climb and catch them after they have fallen so that they don’t fall quite so hard or fast. I choose the last way. I let my kids fall and break their fall so that they don’t get hurt. But they still feel themselves go off balance, they still feel themselves slip. They still sometimes get bumped and they still sometimes cry. They learn that if they stand on chairs they will lose their balance and they will fall. So they learn how to stand on chairs without losing their balance. They learn that if they stand up in the bathtub they might slip, so they learn to walk carefully in the bathtub. I never let a young child be in the bath alone and I never let a young child climb on the swingset alone. But if my fifteen month old is bouncing around on her butt and slips under the water? I show her that her lack of caution scares me, and I pull her back up and give her hugs and remind her how to be careful. Kids learn from mistakes. They learn to keep themselves safe when they are allowed to make the little mistakes when they are little. They also learn that when they are doing anything that requires caution that they want me there to spot them until they are sure that they can do it safely on their own. I’m a spotter, not a stopper.

4- Ask if they need help, but don’t help them unless they indicate that they do. If your child is getting frustrated watch and see if they continue trying. If they are getting too frustrated ask them if they need help. If they don’t agree to help then let them keep trying even if they’re getting frustrated. I stay present and focused on them when this happens and then drift back to my own stuff when they have gotten past their frustration. If a child is getting too frustrated that they simply can’t cope then you can help them step away to practice calming down. By “too frustrated” I mean that they’ve devolved into a tantrum or are trying to break something.

5- Give choices. “Do you want to help mommy or do you want to..” If your child wants to help or be with you while you do something, let them. Often my kids will start out wanting to “help” me make dinner and they will decide 15 minutes into it that they want to play instead. Forced independent play doesn’t generally make a child seek out independent play. If my child is not feeling up to being independent but I have to cook dinner? That’s fine that they don’t want to play but they have to help or keep me company and they have to follow the kitchen rules.

6- Toys that do imagination for your child? Boring. Try to have more toys that can have multiple purposes or that can be mis-used. Have a lot of not-toys that your kids can play with. One of my kids’ favorite toys is an old Intex pool filter that was put in the “to bring to the town dump” pile as it burned out and was replaced last summer. It’s a canister with two long hoses. I removed the power cord and they pour water into the hoses and experiment with gravity and other things. It occupies them far longer than a tablet or a talking toy.  They saw it in the discard pile and claimed it as theirs. Other popular toys are a cut up log that can be a stepping stone balance beam jumping thing, a table with chairs, a thing to tip over to find the bugs, weights to hold down tents, things to practice rolling down the slant of our backyard, pieces of cut lumber from Home Depot in different sizes and shapes, a giant pile of topsoil that was slatted for use in the garden but that became a source of endless play.

7- “Bad” behaviors don’t need to be discouraged so much as they need to have limits. If your child throws rocks it doesn’t mean that they’re going to throw rocks at people or houses. I teach my children to look before they throw and to make sure that they’re not throwing at a person, place, pet, or plant. They learn “look before you throw” instead of “don’t throw”. All the benefits of getting to throw, but none of the things that people want to avoid.

8- Independent play doesn’t start off looking like “Okay I’m going to put you down now while you play nicely with your toys for two hours.” It starts off with you trying to put a small child down for five minutes and the answer is loud shrieks of upset that occur immediately. You pick the child up and that’s the independent playtime for the day. Try again tomorrow. Eventually they let you put them down for a minute to play with them. Eventually they let you put them down for a minute and they play with a toy by themselves. Eventually they run away from you and you chase after them because YOU WANT TO PLAY because you’re bored. But they have stuff to do. Like making mud pies in their mud kitchen. But if you ask nicely they might let you eat them.

9- Independent play comes from building a rich imagination. Ask your child questions while you play with them. Pause. Involve them. Encourage them to lead. “And Mr. Mouse walked into the VERY BIG HOUSE and… What happened next? Oo? A DRAGON? AWESOME! And then what happened?” If you imagine everything for them or correct the accuracy of their imaginings then they will want you to imagine for them. And then you will have to imagine for them. Every. Single. Time.

10- Some kids play independently better than others. My oldest is not keen on independent play and often chooses to help instead. He is social and craves interaction. As he got older he became an excellent helper. His desire for involvement makes him incredibly social, helpful, and an engaged and receptive learner. Not being willing or able to play independently as a younger child is not as big of an issue as the child becomes older. He’s an avid reader and pack leader of his younger siblings. Some kids are social. Some kids are independent. Some kids are both. Some kids need help with one or the other. And that’s okay.

3 thoughts on “10 Ways to Teach Independent Play

  1. I really needed this article. Thank you!! Your writing really touches my life and lives of my children. I try to read (or reread) one of your posts at the end of every workday. It helps me leave my work mindset at work, and turn on the “Mommy in me” that I really want to be. Thank you so much.

  2. Thank you for this very important information on teaching children to play by themselves. We want as parents and caregivers to have them capable of such, often we have NO idea how to teach them to do so. Your tips are invaluable, Nurshable, for this post, and all your others as well, many thanks.

  3. Some of our favorite “toys” are a basket of rocks, metal mixing bowls and a large slotted spoon. We rotate other things in like dump trucks and stackable gears, but really the simplest toys never get old.

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