10 Steps to Build Independence in Play

My almost three-year-old daughter is very attached to me for a plethora of reasons, some medical, some emotional, some related to her sensory processing issues. Her attachment to me has made it very difficult for her to begin the transition to playing independently.

This presents many frustrations for us both. There are certainly times throughout the day where I would like her to play alone so that I can prepare meals, go to the bathroom, or possibly even get online for a few minutes. I bristle a bit when I am really feeling the need to have a moment to myself and my daughter breaks down into hysterics (filled with very raw, powerful emotion) if I try to pull away from her when she is genuinely unable to be apart from me.

This issue came to a head several months ago and I decided that I needed to find a way to gently, warmly, and respectfully encourage her to spend a few moments alone at various points in the day entertaining herself. It would be a bonus if she would actually enjoy the alone time, too.

Personally, I see guiding children toward playing on their own as one of the greatest gifts you can bestow. The downtime for coloring, making a cave, or exploring the backyard fosters skills children need to be successful and fulfilled. Independent play blossoms into more creativity, critical thinking, and confidence.

Many parents, myself included at times, feel obligated to “show” our children how to play. This can inadvertently turn into overtaking our child’s innate ability to play. This adult interpretation of play begins to hinder a child’s ability to play independently. Then parents are shocked when their children rely on them for entertainment.

I have given the issue of independent play a lot of consideration and come up with a 10-step plan which gently encourages my daughter to find ways of entertaining herself, relying less on me as her sole playmate. Helping any child to feel comfortable playing independently for longer and longer periods of time is a very slow process, so be prepared to take things as slowly as your child needs. Rushing will only break the trust that you and your child have, which could result in even more dependence on you.

10 Steps to Build Independence in Play

  1. Determine how long your child is now able to play by himself (based on age and developmental readiness) then pick a time to work on increasing your child’s attention span each day. Having a specific play time each day makes the process easier and will make it much more comfortable for your child.
  2. Initially, your child isn’t going to be happy playing alone if it also means being isolated from everyone (especially Mom). So, whenever possible, try to do your own things, but in each other’s company. For instance, if you’re reading, invite your toddler to join you on the bed with his favorite picture books so you can “read” together, or give him pots and pans to play with in the kitchen while you’re preparing dinner. Finding activities that you can each do independently but together can benefit you both. As your child’s comfort level with independent play increases, move further and further out of eyeshot.
  3. Children really have no concept of time, even when they can read numbers on a clock. Five minutes feels like an eternity. Set a timer and let your child know that you will be available as soon as the buzzer sounds. Slightly older children can see the timer counting down, which may aid them as well. Once the time is up, turn your attention back to your child, so she trusts that the system works. Eventually, she’ll come to appreciate that you have rights and need time (ideally, beyond five minutes!) on your own.
  4. Your child might be hesitant to play on his own because he can’t quite get the hang of a particular toy or game. To encourage his efforts, give him some pointers without engaging in play. You might possibly show him how to stack the blocks, or work a wind-up toy fire engine. Once you get the process rolling, step away so he can continue on his own, assuring him that you’ll be close by if he needs you.
  5. Make several different toys and activities available and accessible. If your child’s toys are difficult to reach or hidden away, they are of no use. Beyond this, don’t find things for your child to do. In the child’s mind, you are now a willing play partner since you suggested the activity. Allow your child to come up with something to do that interests her if the toys and activities available are not what she wants to do.
  6. Rotate toys on a weekly or bimonthly basis. Children can tire of their playthings, and in an effort to build more of a desire to play alone, it is good to keeps things fresh and exciting. Children who have trouble playing independently might be more willing if they have not seen a favorite item in a week or two.
  7. Have some music your child enjoys playing in the background. If Mom is in another room attending to her needs, said child might become unsettled by the quiet. A little background noise might ease the discomfort with playing alone just a little bit.
  8. Provide a genuine incentive to your child if he spends some time playing by himself. Perhaps the two of you can go to the park after you have had 15 minutes to finish a project. Or maybe you can get out the finger paints once 10 minutes is up. Whatever promise you make, be sure to keep it. Don’t let an incentive be confused with a reward. You are simply offering your child time to connect with you through an activity he or she enjoys after the brief time apart.
  9. Refrain from showing your annoyance if your child interrupts your alone time or cannot make it through his or her entire designated play time. Work on finding a way to help your child stay the course for the remainder of her independent play time. Perhaps all she needed was a hug and quick snuggle.
  10. When you are playing with your child, nurture her independent spirit by allowing your child to lead during play time, refraining from doing things for her and instead asking that your child shows you how she wants something to look or be done, and encouraging her as she completes a challenging endeavor.

Don’t expect independent play to happen overnight. Your child is used to the safety and comfort of your presence, and to your participation in everything, so she might not be receptive to playing solo right away. Just be sure to be patient with her progress and encourage her successes, and the both of you will learn (and relearn) how nice a little “alone time” can be.

About The Author: Jennifer S

HybridRastaMama My NPN Posts

Jennifer blogs about conscious parenting practices, mindful living, holistic health and wellness, natural healing, real foods (with a focus on coconut oil) as well as Waldorf based parenting approaches at Hybrid Rasta Mama.

4 Responses to 10 Steps to Build Independence in Play

  1. Elena

    I appreciate all the thought that went into this post, and I remember with my first, when it was just the two of us all day long, I was desperate for a minute or two to myself.

    I think the need for “independent play” strategies is yet another consequence of our modern “Mommy in a box” lifestyle, because in a natural human social setting, there would be a ton of young cousins, neighbors, etc. around to play with.

    Trust me when I say, five kids later, that independent play just happens if there is more than one kid around, even at ages younger than this. They would much rather hang around each other, even if they’re each playing their own thing, and they’ll only come to Mama when they really need something.

    It’s sad to me that in our current nuclear family arrangements, many of our basic needs (for the child, companionship, for the Mama, time and space to concentrate on a task) are not met and we have to go to such convoluted lengths to try to satisfy them, when in a “normal” human community these needs would be met effortlessly.

  2. Jo

    Really interested in this excellent post. It confirms other advice I’ve received as well as giving me new ideas and inspiring me to keep trying. This has been one of the biggest challenges with my child.
    Just to add, I’ve found music works really well, as well as audio stories. Also, I’ve heard sand-timers can be good as a count down for younger children.
    Thanks for this!

  3. Lauren  

    Thanks so much for these tips! I know having my 4-year-old play at stretches by himself or with other kids has been such a relief for my husband and me. He’s also been high-needs, whereas my baby is more content to play by himself already. I definitely found that using gentle and gradual steps toward independent play helped a lot, but I’m going to incorporate some of these particular ideas to move his creativity forward. I think they’d also work well for just letting him lead play when we’re playing together, so I think that will be fun!

  4. Janine  

    Great post! My 18 month old son is pretty damn great at playing independently, even if that means “exploring” all of the DVDs by pulling them off the shelves or strewing my craft supplies everywhere to examine them. Your post did make me realize that I might instruct a little bit too much. I genuinely like playing with toys! And so I tend to jump in and give my ideas when maybe I should let him lead the way. Definitely noted!

    I also really like the idea of reading together but separately – That’s something I’d been thinking about as a way to actually get some reading done for myself. Doing it in bed sounds especially awesome!

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