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Independent Play: Why it Matters and How to Encourage it

Living in the era of information has made parenting more difficult than it ever was. Advice on raising children is given via numerous outlets and is often conflicted and confusing.

Advice on children’s play is no exception. If you don’t interact with your child constantly, you are not doing the right thing. If you don’t allow or encourage independent play, you are not doing the right thing.

So, what is independent play? What is a normal amount of time for children to play alone? Why does independent play even matter? How do we encourage our kids to play alone?

Let’s dive right in.

What is independent play?

The idea of independent play can be off-putting to some parents. Some have the idea that playing alone means an adult is not present or available.

While this may be the case for older children, independent play in younger children simply means that a child is engaging in activity without interference from an adult or another child.

How long should children be able to play by themselves?

You may have heard parents on social media talking about how their young child can play alone for hours at a time. I am not saying this does not happen, as my first child could play independently for a seemly excessive amount of time, but it is not the usual.

Personality, temperament, and normal development play a big part in a child’s ability to play alone. Every child’s ability to play alone, even with parents doing everything to facilitate it, is going to be different.

As with everything else, it’s best not to compare one child to another.

Why is independent play important?

Bonding with our children is crucial and every moment we spend with them is important for their physical and emotional development. A child’s play, however, does not always (or even usually) require us.

Playing alone actually has benefits for both the parent and the child:

Encourages creativity and imagination

When an adult engages in play with a child, the creativity of the play becomes limited. Playtime with caregivers is vital, but undirected play carries more value in the creativity department.

Helps social independence

As counterintuitive as it may seem, playing alone can actually encourage your child to not shy away from being around others. Playing independently from a parent helps prepare a child for other events wherein a parent will not be involved, or even present.

Calms children

Independent play is a peaceful activity that can bring calmness to a child. Unlike play with other children or an adult, the child is in control of much of the amount of stimulus in the activity they choose.

This is sometimes the reason parents implement “quiet time” when their preschoolers drop naps. Parents may often notice their child will choose to play independently following a time-in, before rejoining the stimulating activity.

Helps with problem-solving

Without an adult’s engagement, children are “forced” to solve problems in play on their own. As we learned while reading about loose parts play, children left to their own devices, will create storylines in their minds and come up with ways to bring them to life.

When problems arise with implementation, children must figure out how to navigate it on their own. This is an important skill they will carry with them into adulthood and can boost self-esteem and confidence.

Decreases play dependence on adults

While play does come naturally to children, many parents engage their children in play unnecessarily, which can create a dependence on us. When we reintroduce independent play, children discover they are capable of creating their own fun through play.

Encourages self-care for parents

Along with the benefits to children, parents get a perk, too. Namely, self-care.

Parenting can be exhausting work. It is hard to be mentally and emotionally present for the ever-important bonding moments when you are run ragged by constantly setting up activities and engaging in play.

Having moments throughout the day where you can sit and enjoy a cup of tea, a book, a phone conversation, or even a browse through Facebook is important.

Engaging in self-care is also great modeling for our kids!

How to encourage independent play

Age-appropriate independent play is absolutely possible for most children. Facilitating independent play may, for some of us, mean that we need to look inward and examine our own responses to our children.

Tip 1

Wait for engagement.

Sit next to your child and simply watch them play. Meet their requests for engagement without initiating it yourself.

You can move away from your child a little while remaining in the room when they are intently focused on an activity.

When your child looks to you for interaction, interact while making sure to praise their efforts. Avoid saying things like, “Good job“, and instead say something to the effect of, “I see how hard you are working on that!“.

When they feel good about the effort they put into what they are working on, they are less likely to seek engagement and praise at every turn.

Tip 2

Don’t hover.

In order for your child to want their own space, you have to allow them to experience that it’s an option. In order for your child to feel comfortable and confident playing in that space, they need to know that as long as they are playing safely, they are playing correctly.

The importance of a child’s safety cannot be overstated, but hovering is not necessary and can cause children anxiety. Childproofing, providing age-appropriate items for play, and observing your child’s play is enough.

Tip 3

We naturally want our child to reach their potential. This can cause us to inject ourselves into their activities when they, for example, misname an item or when we don’t see an overt educational value in what they are doing.

While sensitive periods in development should be taken advantage of by parents to encourage certain things, the short time children engage in independent play should not be interrupted for this effort.

Essentially, don’t interrupt a playing child unless there is a real problem.

Tip 4

Involve your child in household work.

Wait, what? How does this lead to independent play?

Children enjoy participating in things that happen around the house, be it cooking, washing dishes, folding laundry, etc. Have your child accompany you in some of your household “adventures”.

Many of the household tasks your child is interested in can be presented on a child-size scale in the form of Practical Life activities. Setting up a dishwashing station or a doll washing station on a sensory table can provide opportunities for independent play.

Think about the things we don’t invite our kids to help us with because they can be messy. Set those activities up on a smaller scale.

Tip 5

In a Montessori classroom, you will see very little teaching happening. The environment engages the children and the materials do the teaching.

While we are not trying to recreate a Montessori learning environment in our homes, we can take elements of concept and apply them to the areas we set up for our children.

The basic idea is to create a play area that is appealing and provides a child with everything they need to busy themselves. Below are some play space tips that help facilitate independent play.

Tip 6

Limit or eliminate (if even temporarily) screen time and limit the flashy light-up toys.

While there is no inherent danger in light-up toys or screens, themselves, it is easy for things to fall out of balance and for children to get used to toys and screens doing the playing for them; not to mention the dopamine and adrenaline screen time delivers.

After a few days of “detox” and the possibility of independent play becomes greater.

Don’t be afraid of boredom.

Play is something that comes naturally to children. It is not something that parents and caregivers need to give instruction on. However, some children need more encouragement than others.

How well does your little one play on their own?

Cheers and don’t forget to subscribe!

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Jessica

Tuesday 26th of January 2021

Could you provide a reference for the table please? I was unable to find it based on the source you listed under it in the article. Thank you!

Noteworthy Mommy

Tuesday 26th of January 2021

Thank you for writing this. I had wanted to share the same information with my readers at some point. I love the chart as it states realistic expectations. Having the ability to successfully play independently doesn’t just happen, it takes some modeling and coaching.

Christa

Monday 25th of January 2021

Oh my goodness, I needed to read this. My daughter, and first born, is almost 3 and she struggles with independent play. She will often play by herself, but constantly needs someone by her or commenting on what she's doing, which is okay to a degree, but makes it very difficult to get other things done. I will certainly be using some of these tips!

Mckayla

Monday 25th of January 2021

Carson always has independent play time! I’ll be rotating his toys again soon, although we don’t have a great process for this at the moment!

Carrie Pankratz

Monday 25th of January 2021

I really appreciate the chart you provided. As a new mom, I expected my son to be able to play by himself much longer than I should have, and then I felt like I was doing something wrong. Personality plays a big role in this. My first played well independently. My second one wanted me with him and engaged every second. It was tricky to navigate and give him some space. He had a couple of activities that he would do on his own. Playdough and Magnatiles were both favorites.