There’s one question that pops into my inbox more often than any other question. “How do I get my child to play independently?” Sometimes we all wish our little learners could just play independently without constantly needing us to entertain them.
So today I’m going to give you 3 quick tips to support your child to play independently. But before we dive in, let’s just explore what it does and doesn’t mean to play independently!
What is independent play?
Independent play might mean different things to different people. But for me, independent play is all about the child choosing something to play with or do without having to interact and have the parent join in with them. The parent might be close by reading a book, doing some chores or simply sitting and taking a breather while their little learner happily plays by themselves close by. Take the example below – you’ll see our then 5 year old and 3 year old playing happily with a small world while I sorted the piles of washing beside them. They weren’t relying on me to play WITH them – they were simply enjoying play while they had access to me close by.
Independent play doesn’t necessarily mean being able to send your child off to their room or a play room and closing the door knowing that they’ll play all by themselves. Our little learners want to be close to us. They want to be able to interact, chat, ask questions and engage while they’re busy playing. They want to know they can access us when they need us, so it’s not developmentally appropriate to expect that our children will happily play in a room all by themselves.
So how do we support our little learners to be able to play independently? Let me share some quick tips!
Tip #1 – Prepare the environment
My biggest tip is to prepare your play space in a way that will best facilitate independently play! Many families are drawn to the idea of a playroom, but quite often this won’t work if you’re expecting that your 2 year old will go and play in there independently while you make dinner in the kitchen at the other end of the house!
Think about where you spend the most time during the day and prepare that space in a way that will invite independent play. For us on a work day, we spend most of our time in the office. This means that we have a combined office and play room. Audrey is 2 now and she’ll happily sit on the floor beside us doing puzzles or building with blocks while we work on our computers. We’re right there engaging with her as needed, but she’s also happy to explore there without us having to sit right on the floor beside her.
Some families find that setting up a play space in their living room works really well because their little learners are able to play while mum or dad makes dinner or does chores right there where their little one can see them. We had our main play space in the living room when Lilly was a toddler and that worked so well for us!
Also consider how your play space is set up. You want to ensure that all of the toys are presented in a way that’s accessible for your little learner. Sometimes this means placing just a few blocks in a small, shallow basket on a low-lying shelf. Sit on the floor at your child’s height and make sure they can access and open everything themselves.
Tip #2 – Fill up their bucket
Before we can expect our little learners to want to play close by to us, we need to spend some time filling their bucket. If you haven’t read about bucket filling, I highly recommend reading How Full is Your Bucket* (for younger children) and Have You Filled a Bucket Today?
The idea is that everyone has an invisible bucket. Some things will tip from our bucket and other things will fill our bucket. When our bucket is full, we feel happy. When our bucket is empty, we feel sad. Every kind action we take helps to fill our bucket and the bucket of others.
Take time to sit and fill your child’s bucket before you expect them to play independently. This might mean sitting and reading a book together. Maybe you’ll do some baking or choose a sensory play activity from my book to enjoy together. By making time to fill their bucket first, your little learner is more likely to want to sit and play without you right there beside them.
Tip #3 – Build stamina
Sometimes we just need to adjust our expectations and start small! Remember that younger children especially just don’t have as much play stamina as an older child. I often joke that if an activity entertains our 2 year old for longer than 5 minutes, it’s actually equivalent to 3453 hours scientifically speaking haha!
Quite often, we’re actually expecting too much of our children. The graphic below outlines the average attention span of a child based on their age. Does it surprise you?
To build their play stamina, simply start small. This might mean moving up to the lounge from the floor for just 2 minutes to start with. Explain to your little learner what you’re doing and then once those 2 minutes are up, celebrate with your little learner! Slowly build up to longer periods of time. Before you know it, your little learner will happily find their own fun while you do what you need to do close by.
I hope that this blog has given you some ideas to support your little learner in playing independently! Sometimes we just have to step back a bit and stop being so entertaining. Our little learners are so perfectly capable of finding their own fun when we take a few steps back and just observe.
I know when social media is filled with ideas and activities, it can be hard to sit back and just watch the magic unfold. But it’s so important that we do this from time to time to allow real, authentic child-led play to happen.