How To Encourage Independent Play

How To Encourage Independent Play


Need help trying to figure out how to encourage independent play in your toddlers or preschooler? I get it. I have a stage 5 clinger of a child, but I am not a saint of a mom. I need some space every now and again so that I can do things like cook, fold laundry, think, and breath. Joking on that last one… Kinda.

So how do you get your kids play on their own without them acting like you asked them to clean the grout with a toothbrush and without all the mom guilt?

Here are my tried and true methods to getting my kids to play independently.

What is Independent Play?

Independent play is basically any time a child is playing on their own. Playing by themselves allows out kids to build on a variety of skills so the very first thing you need to do is ditch the guilt that comes with having your kid play by themselves. Studies have shown that when children play with adults the play is driven by the adult instead of the child. Even when the adult is trying to follow the child’s lead, the child will change their play to mirror what they think the adult wants. This isn’t to say we should never play with our kids, but that there is room for both.

While most experts define independent play as just the child playing by themselves, as a mom who is looking for some time to myself, I will accept my kids playing together as independent play as long as they play nicely.

Benefits of independent play:

  • problem solving
  • social emotional skills
  • resiliency
  • self-confidence
  • imagination & creativity
  • fosters independence & self-reliance

Learn more about why you should encourage independent play here.



Establish Independent Play

Set a routine

Like everything in our kid’s lives when we create a reliable routine they will grow and thrive.

Just like when we were teaching our babies to nap daily at 11am we have to teach them to play daily. Play is hard work for our kids and it is a skill that has to be practiced.

We can set the tone and prepare our kid’s bodies for daily independent play by following a set routine.

For my family we have always done cartoons, breakfast, errands/leave the house, activity, play, lunch, nap, activity, play, dinner, family time

By establishing this routine my kids know that ever day I will spend quality time with them doing an activity, eating meals, and at family time. They also know that they will be expected to play daily after an activity and after nap.

little boy playing in train table - how to encourage independent play


Ease into it

So I mentioned that I have a stage 5 clinger, right? By no means was I able to tell my kids that from 10-11 they need to play by themselves and mommy is off limits. We had to ease into it.

For us it looked like this. I would play with them. A few minutes into it I would excuse myself to go to the bathroom and come back immediately. I needed to give my kids the confidence that they could play on their own and I would return in small chunks of time.

Bathroom trips turned into switching the laundry. Which then led to folding the laundry right next to them. And that led to folding the laundry in the next room. Slowly over time my kids were playing for 30 minutes on their own. And as their imaginations grew, they were able to play for 1 hour by themselves and 2-3 hours together without adult interaction.

It took time. And there are still days when my stage 5 clinger needs to play in the same room as me, somethings just don’t change.

preschoolers playing with a sensory bin - how to encourage independent play


This sounds a little backwards, I know. But my favorite way to get my kids to play without me is to set up an activity for them.

Here’s the thing. Most of the activities I set up are learning activities, sensory activities, or art. When I do these with my kids I am able to connect with them and fill their cups with much needed mommy time. Yup, the goal is have them doing me time and we achieve that by first giving them mommy time.

Then the activities spark my kids imagination. Sometimes they finish the activity and sometimes they only make it half way through before they want to do their own thing. Either way I embrace it. Forcing my kids to complete the activity when they want to move on will make them dislike the learning activity and throw a curve ball at the goal – independent play.

preschool boy pouring colored water - how to encourage independent play

Go Outside or Add Water

Something magical happens when I send my kids outside or I give them water to play with. We have taken many baths in the middle of the day because I needed to kill time and get the kids doing something, anything really.

When my kids are outside, playing with water, or both they seem to forget about me and I am 100% cool with that.


What kind of activities will encourage independent play?

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