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Encouraging Independent Play

Preschoolers and their parents lead busy lives. There are pretend cakes to bake; dolls and stuffies with “boo boos” that need mending; and grocery shopping to do for the play kitchen.

As fun as these games are for kids, there are very real tasks that all parents need to get done during the day—and it’s not easy when you are your preschooler’s all-time favorite playmate. Sometimes your child can “help” you with tasks, such as setting the table and matching socks. Most of the time, though, they will want you to “help” them with building blocks or coloring.

But learning to play well on their own for short periods of time is a skill all children can benefit from. As they become more independent, not only does it free up time for you to make a quick meal or a phone call, but it gives your child time to practice making their own decisions and using their imagination.

If your child is resistant to playing alone, here are some tips for gently encouraging independent play.

What is independent play?

Simply put, it means playing alone. But it’s not as harsh as it sounds. Just like infants and toddlers play “side-by-side,” you and your child can independently play side-by-side. If your preschooler is slow to warm up to the idea of playing solo, set them up (with a game, craft, books) near you. Examples could include:

  • Set up washable paints at the kitchen table while you wash dishes.
  • If you want to read, grab a stack of your child’s favorite picture books and snuggle in bed together.
  • Set up a play kitchen in your real kitchen, so your child can “cook” while you make dinner.

At first, when your child is playing next to you, check in with them every few minutes. Tell them how much you appreciate having a few minutes to work on whatever it is you are doing. Compliment them on their high block tower or their use of color in their pictures. You can gradually increase the time between check-ins, which will expand their tolerance for independent play.

Give your child activities they can do

Preschoolers can feel easily frustrated when a toy isn’t working the way they want it to. To support your child’s independent play, try giving them toys and activities that don’t require your help. For example, if the soft dough lids are hard to open, loosen them before moving on to your own activity.

Help your child pick an activity

If you ask your preschooler to “go pick something to play with,” chances are they will come back frustrated and empty-handed. With too many options, it’s hard for preschoolers to make choices. Narrowing down their options for them, is one way to make the decision easier: “While Daddy puts laundry away, do you want to play with your trains or action figures?”

Help get your child set up

Once your child picks their toy or activity, help them get set up: “Mommy is going to rake leaves in the yard, so let’s set up your art easel in the backyard so you can paint pictures of all the different colored leaves!” Whenever possible, make it as easy as possible for your child to manipulate their toys or games without your assistance.

Open lids and toy boxes ahead of time

  • Anticipate what your child will need to do the activity, so there is less of a chance of them asking your for items, such as paint brushes, wash cloths, etc.
  • Have what your child needs easy to get to.

Let go of the guilt

Some parents feel guilty for saying “not now” when their preschooler asks them to play.  Remember, that in small amounts, playing independently is healthy for children’s development. Independent play:

  • Encourages imagination
  • Provides problem-solving opportunities
  • Boosts self-confidence

As a parent, you cannot effectively do your job if you give every bit of yourself to your child. You need small breaks in your day to feed yourself and the family; decompress with a call to a friend; or have a cup of tea. Using moments when your child is happily playing alone to have a cup of tea, call a loved one, or read a chapter of a book is how you “fill your cup” as a parent.

This article is brought to you by Parenting Now Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com).  

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