7 Ways to Boost Independent Play
Alright, Mums and Dads! Let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of independent play!
I know there is a real pressure to be the constant source of entertainment for our children these days.
Just one scroll through the ‘gram seeing beautifully curated play sessions might have you questioning why your tot isn’t doing it like those kids.
I want to preface this blog with a very clear statement: PLAY IS LEARNING, whatever that looks like for your child in this age and stage, they are always LEARNING from whatever they are doing.
So, let’s check those parental expectations by getting super clear on what independent play looks like at different ages/stages! Your child’s development in independent play is definitely not linear, so take a breath and trust in their timing – they have got this!
Your little one begins to engage with some independent play as young as 2 or 3 months, simply by observing colours and textures.
This is a little reminder that you can sit back and allow space and quiet even for the littlest of babies - you don’t have to constantly be engaging their attention. In fact, allowing small chunks of space from the start will lay the foundations for the development of independent play.
As your baby grows, they will begin to take more interest in objects around them, for increasing periods of time.
Once they are mobile, it’s all on! You’re likely to see your child bounce from activity to activity or object to object, quicker than you can blink!
From around 2 years old you might notice your child engaging with an activity for around 4 - 6 minutes.
4-year-olds; 8 - 12 minutes
And 6-year-olds; 12 - 18 minutes
Now, these are general guidelines, there are children who will attend for longer or shorter times depending on a lot of factors.
Independent play may be quiet, or not. They may play with one toy intently, or not. There are no rules (so as long as everyone is being safe) besides the fact that it is child-led, free from adult-influence!
So what are the benefits of independent play?
- Enhances problem-solving skills
- Boosts creativity, boredom is actually a fantastic gift to give your child
- Interests and talents form and strengthen
- Promotes confidence as they explore mastery and control
- Calms the nervous system
- Develops self-regulation
- Provides space from over-stimulation
- Increased academic/cognitive benefits
How can we support this?
Think Basics First
Is your child fed, watered, sleeping well, and calm? Are they feeling connected to you? Ensuring your tot's needs are met prior to setting up some play is definitely going to increase the success of independence.
Keep in mind that just because your child nailed it one day, doesn’t mean it’s going to happen every day from then on! They are allowed to have bad days too!
Scaffold the Progression of Independent Play
It’s natural for our children to want us to be fully involved in whatever they are doing, especially if they are used to having you there!
If this is what you’re currently experiencing I would recommend slowly introducing independent play.
This might look like starting an activity with your child and popping off to do a quick job before returning to observe, encourage and head off to do another job. You can slowly increase the times you are away in a way that feels good for both you and your child!
Offer Open-Ended Toys, as well as Close-Ended Toys
Open-ended toys have multiple uses, allowing creativity and imagination to flow! There are no rules, expectations, no right or wrong way!
As your child gets older you may even find play becomes a space to process events through retelling situations they have experienced.
Close-ended toys have one specific purpose e.g. puzzles. There are endless benefits to these kinds of toys too! Including the ability to learn self-correction, enhance concentration and rise to a challenge! Before offering these kinds of toys, I encourage you to demonstrate how the toy is used a few times before expecting independent engagement.
Don’t Rush to Problem-Solve
This tends to be something we struggle with as parents, we don’t like to see our kids frustrated or angry and are usually quick to fix the problem in order to avoid a spiralling tantrum or meltdown.
But let’s stop right there, problem-solving is a critical life skill!
Every time we “rescue”, we reinforce that our child actually can’t do this. They need you to do it for them.
So, what do I recommend instead?
Coach them through the emotions and start laying the foundations by asking the right questions:
“Oh, I can see you’re feeling frustrated, it’s okay to feel frustrated! It is frustrating when the pieces don‘t fit”
“Show me the tricky part”
“Hmm that isn’t quite fitting, what could you try next?”
Give plenty of time between questions, you’re little tot’s brain will take a good chunk of time to process what’s going on, even more so when upset!
Independent Play does not include screen-time!
Eeeep, yep sorry team. The tablet, iPad, or TV is definitely not considered Independent Play.
While there’s no judgment here, I definitely recommend following the current guidelines around screen-time. Use it to your advantage e.g. to entertain while preparing dinner or if you need to take an important call! But definitely it on the back-burner.
Rotate Toys to Keep Engagement High
Rotating toys helps ensure higher levels of engagement. It’s the whole satiation/deprivation thing… too much of one thing ends up being super boring super quickly for our kids. When we rotate toys it’s like they are brand new again!
I recommend rotating toys every week or observe your child, if they’re looking bored it’s probably time to switch it up!
Resist Offering Too Many Toys
As well as rotating toys, I also recommend limiting the amount of toys on offer. Having too many toys around can see your toddler jump from one thing to the next to the next very quickly. You can develop their attention span by providing less toys, which in turn can see engagement lengthened.
Aim to keep it to 8 - 10 activities and if you’re super keen, check out the Play Schemas! Having toys that address each of the schemas is a great way to support play development!
Courtney is a parenting and sleep buff - like the Super Nanny (but cooler) and founder of The Parenting Edit, specialising in all things feel-good when it comes to parenthood! She is a
- Registered teacher
- Behavioural specialist
- Infant and child sleep consultant
- Mum to two little ones
- Step mum to two big ones
- Fierce child protection advocate
Courtney is on a mission to take the black and white out of a parenting. Keeping it real and realistic and helping families have a laugh through it all!
You can find out more about her services at www.theparentingedit.co or on instagram!