How to Teach Independent Play to Your Toddler

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Does your toddler need constant attention and engagement?  It seems like it takes forever before toddlers learn how play independently.  And this can make it nearly impossible for you to get anything done.  But today, I’m going to share with you my child therapist-approved tips on how to teach independent play to your toddler.

It’s important to note that you might not see immediate results when implementing these tips and strategies.  Each child differs developmentally.  But your child will play more independently as he grows, and by following these tips, you’ll be on the road to him playing alone sooner than later.  (Be sure to check out one of favorite tips, #11!).

Also, these tips are great for a two-year-old or three-year-old.  And it’s good to continue doing these activities with your young child in order to enhance his independent play skills beyond toddlerhood. 

What is Independent Play?

Before I get into how to teach independent play to your toddler, let’s get clear on what I mean by “independent play.”

Just as it sounds, independent play consists of your child playing alone, independently.  This could include imaginative play, crafts, strategic games, building, or whatever type of play your child enjoys.

Remember, however, that your child should still be supervised during independent play.  And you should make sure the area where your child is playing is safe before directing your attention elsewhere.  

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How to Teach Independent Play to Your Toddler

1. Put in a lot of work up front by playing with your child frequently!

Want to know how to teach independent play to your toddler? Well, let’s face it… It’s going to require some work on your end.

You may want your toddler to play independently now.  But sooner or later, he’ll be able to if you’re patient and put in some work up front.  This means you’ll have to play with him a lot now so that he learns how to play and can develop more of an interest in playing on his own.  The next few tips tell you more about how to play with your child as a way to teach independent play.

2. Model play and imaginative play.

Your young toddler might not really know how to play or keep himself engaged.  So it’s up to you to show him.  Therefore, pull out the toys and just start playing.  Your child will likely either take interest and join you or sit back and learn.  Just try to avoid forcing your child to watch you play (see #4 below).

3. Schedule and set aside play time.

You don’t necessarily need to do this for your child; do it for you.  Even if your child has mastered independent play, you should still play with your child or spend quality time with him daily.  And having a schedule or time set aside is a great way to hold yourself accountable and ensure you devote that time to your child.

P.S. Did you know there are child therapist-recommended techniques to spending quality time with your child?  You can check them out here!

4. Don’t focus on teaching.

When you play with your child, don’t try to turn it into a lesson by forcing your child to watch you or prompting him to do certain things.  Let your child guide the play, and just go along with things and appear interested. 

5. Don’t ask questions.

This point goes along with the previous point.  Yes, you want to show interest in what your child is playing.  But every time you ask a question, your child has to stop and think.  As a result, kids tend to perceive questions as disruptions.  So instead, try to show interest by describing what your child is doing as he’s playing (“The doggie is happy because he found his ball”).  P.S. He’ll correct you if you’re wrong.

6. Praise your child during play.

Tell your child what he’s doing that’s good, whether it be sitting and attending for a couple extra minutes, demonstrating imaginative play, or coming up with a cool idea while playing.  This will encourage him to continue playing.

Related Post: How to Praise Children to Get Them to Listen

7. Give your child a head start… and then slip away!

Sometimes this method works, and a lot of times it doesn’t.  But hey… it’s worth a shot!  Get your child engaged in an activity.  Then, after 5-10 minutes, see if you can sneak away.  Don’t forget to praise him for playing by himself afterward.

8. Encourage independent play.

When you’re busy, your child may not know what to do with himself unless you give him some guidance.  So that’s where encouraging your child to play comes in.

Note that encouragement is different from prompting or demanding.  You don’t want your child to associate play with negative feelings, so try to always make play sound like a good thing.

9. Allow your child to be around other kids.

Whether it’s through going to daycare, attending story time at the local library, or having play dates with friends, your toddler will benefit from observing other kids play.  It’s OK if he doesn’t pay much attention to them right now (or if he’s having trouble sharing or turn-taking).  These experiences provide opportunities to teach play skills and social skills that he’ll benefit from in the long run.

10. Find your child’s passion and use it.

Whatever your child is really into at the moment (Elmo, Paw Patrol, etc.), figure out what it is (that part is easy) and use it to your advantage.  Buy some fun toys related to that passion, and find ways to incorporate that passion into your child’s play.

11. Have lots of different activities available.

Your child will need lots of options if you want him to play independently.  So be sure that your child has different toys focused on different skill sets.  Feel free to check out my favorite toys for two-year-olds if you need some inspiration and ideas.

12. But don’t have too many options in sight.

If your child has too many different toys in sight, he’ll likely jump from one activity to another or choose nothing to play with at all.  So while you want different options available, help him narrow down his choices by only presenting a few options at a time or switching out the toys he has easy access to.

13. Have some “secret-weapon” toys handy.

Ok.  Here’s one of my favorite tips… Stash away some special independent play toys that your child rarely gets to play.  These toys should be highly interesting to your child.  Then, whenever you need to do something on your own, pull one of them out in order to keep your child occupied.

14. Have mess-free crafts and sensory objects available.

Kids love to get messy and touch things that provide sensory stimulation.  But they often need to be supervised while doing these activities.  So mess-free crafts and sensory activities can keep your kid occupied.  While my daughter doesn’t normally like to color, she loves these mess-free options:

15. If your toddler is going to watch TV, do this.

See if you can find television shows that teach or model play skills and imagination.  Although I tend to feel guilty when my child gets too much screen time, I have noticed that her imaginative play skills have really improved since she has become obsessed with Toy Story 3, during which Andy and Bonnie demonstrate great imaginative play skills.

16. Pay more attention to good play skills versus bad behavior during playtime.

In general, you want to try to give way more attention to good behavior than bad behavior.  But the same goes when your child is playing.  In order to increase good play skills, you want to give more attention to them and pay less attention to bad play skills.  If your child acts out, give a warning that playtime will cease if the behavior continues, and be sure to follow through.

P.S. If you need some help with your toddler’s behavior, check out my FREE Quick Guide to Surviving Toddler Misbehavior!

Free Quick Guide to Surviving Toddler Misbehavior | How to teach your toddler to behave

17. Try using a timer.

Encouraging your child to play for 5 minutes and using a timer could help you get some time to yourself.  If your child interrupts you during that time, you could simply remind him to wait until the timer goes off.  You can then increase the amount of time expected for him to play as he gets older and better with independent play.

18. Provide relative social rewards for independent play.

“I should reward my child for playing…? That just seems wrong!”  Here’s the thing though… If your child reeeeeally struggles with wanting to play independently, then rewarding him when he plays independently could help.  BUT here’s how you do it:

  • Don’t tell your child you’re going to reward him (that would be more like bribing).  Instead, start off small and reward him for playing for a very short period of time so he’ll be likely to earn that reward.
  • The reward should be a social reward, not a tangible or monetary reward; for instance, you sit and play with him or he gets to help with something or play with a special toy next.  A social reward is easier to fade out over time, whereas kids tend to become more dependent on monetary rewards (stickers, candy, etc.).
  • The reward should be delivered immediately, not later.
  • Increase the amount of time you expect him to play independently as he improves with this skill.

Related Post: How to Reward Your Child’s Good Behavior the Right Way

19. Get creative!

Sometimes kids don’t want to do the easy, obvious thing.  So it helps to get creative.  Instead of offering toys, perhaps you throw a blanket over some chairs and call it a “castle” or let your child play with a bin of balled-up socks.  My daughter went through a period when she liked to play with clean laundry (and I let her because it kept her busy and I needed some time for myself).  So keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need new toys to occupy your child.

20. Make play fun!

Play has to sound like a good thing and has to be associated with good things.  So if you yell at your child (“Go play!”) or tend to lose your patience a lot while playing with him, you may be inadvertently establishing a negative association with play.  Instead, make playtime light and fun!

A Key Take-Away on How to Teach Independent Play to Your Toddler

No matter how much you do, sometimes children won’t do what you want until they’re developmentally ready.  So try not to stress out if your child is struggling with independent play.  (Although, I know that means less time for yourself).

I don’t know about you, but I have found that one day, my kids are nowhere close to demonstrating a particular skill, and then the next day they surprise me and master it.  My three-year-old became very clingy while I was pregnant with my second child, which continued after I had the baby, too.  But then all of sudden, her independent play skills took off.

Also, as your child gets better with independent play, don’t forget that you must still play with your child, give him positive attention, and spend quality time with him.  So his day shouldn’t consist of him just playing alone.

Anyway, you’ve got this, mama!  Your child will get there soon!

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