7 Ways to Encourage Independent Play in Babies and Toddlers
Is your little one constantly clinging to you? While you may find it incredibly sweet at times, there are bound to be moments when you need a little space. And whether they realize it yet or not, your child needs room to explore a bit on their own. Independent play has big advantages for little ones and is an important developmental milestone. Here’s the scoop on independent play and how to encourage your toddler or baby to engage.
What Is Independent Play?
Independent play refers to time a child spends playing all by themselves, even if it’s just for a few minutes. It’s both healthy and appropriate to allow your little one to play alone for a bit as long as they’re safe and you’re nearby. Whether it’s thumbing through pictures in a book on his bed or letting her sit on the floor and stack blocks for a few minutes, step back for a moment and let them enjoy themselves.
Why Is Independent Play Important?
Teaching babies and toddlers to entertain themselves isn’t just about giving mom or dad a break. It also helps children build critical thinking skills and creativity. They get to think and explore in a new way instead of taking direction from mom or dad. By thinking up their own games, solving a puzzle, or finally figuring out how to maneuver a tricky toy, your toddler develops a sense of independence and faith in their own abilities.
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How to Promote Independent Play
Babies and toddlers can’t focus on any one activity for very long. The average attention span for a two-year-old child is only about four to six minutes. However, even those small windows for solo play, interspersed several times throughout the day, are beneficial. They offer a great chance for your little one to learn a bit of self-reliance and foster their imagination. Here are a few ways to promote independent play with your toddler or baby:
Be positive and fully engaging.
When it’s parent/child playtime, make sure they’re getting your complete focus. When your child’s “mommy/daddy love-attention buckets” are completely full, they’ll be more inclined to spend a few minutes playing on their own at other times of the day.
Teach them how to play.
Your baby or toddler might need to watch you roll the toy car around or see you stack the blocks a few times. After you get it going, step back so they can give it a try on their own, encouraging them and letting them know you’re still nearby.
Make toys easily accessible.
Use a small basket or low-level shelf (securely anchored) to hold a small selection of toys. Big, heavy toy boxes can be frustrating to toddlers who can’t dig to the bottom of the pile to get the toy they want. And like many adults, toddlers can become overwhelmed when they're presented with too many choices. Use the toy box to put the bulk of the items away, and then reintroduce them later in small batches. Rotate out the selections frequently.
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Change your location.
If your baby played on their bedroom floor while you put away laundry, try moving them into the kitchen while you wash a few dishes. You can even give them their own drawer to put toys in or some plastic cups to play with.
Try a timer.
If your toddler seems distraught with the whole idea of independent play, explain that you need just five minutes by yourself, and then set a timer that they can watch. When the timer goes off, stick to your word and immediately return your attention back to your little one. This helps your toddler trust that the system works. For babies, try stepping outside the room and then quickly doing a peek-a-boo around the corner. This helps your baby develop object permanence, an understanding that objects and people continue to exist, even when they cannot directly be seen, heard, or touched. As time goes by, they’ll start to understand that even when you go away you’ll return soon.
Offer open-ended playthings.
If you want to really encourage independent thinking, supply your child with toys that have multiple uses. Items like blocks, pots and pans, and cardboard boxes are especially effective for encouraging independent play because all the various possibilities keep children busy longer. The same logic goes for playthings that require a bit more effort to interact with, like buttons, zippers, or Velcro.
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Establish a routine.
Children love consistency so try to establish solo play as a regular part of your child’s day. Find a little time in the morning and again in the afternoon and soon they’ll begin to expect their private playtime.
Encouraging independent play in babies and toddlers takes time. They’re used to the safety and reassurance of your company and your participation in everything that they do. Trying to integrate solo play time may feel a bit overwhelming to both of you at first. Be patient, encourage their progress, and eventually, you’ll both begin to enjoy a little more time on your own.
Looking for more interesting toys to inspire independent play? Take a look at our toys for babies and toddlers.
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