Toddler Independent Play

Teaching our children to become little social humans is very important.  But what you may not realize, is that teaching your kids to play independently is equally important to their social development. 

Personally, this was a skill I lacked as a child.  My sister could spend hours with her toys in some make-believe land.  I constantly had to have someone to play with me.  I see why my poor mother never accomplished anything!  Looking back, not learning how to be alone stayed with me into adulthood.  I eventually acquired this skill, but it took a lot of hard work.

In today’s world (or at least in pre-pandemic life) children have very little alone time.  We feel it is a parental duty to give our children the opportunity to participate in numerous outside activities.  Many of us believe piling on playdates is a must if we want them to fit in. Yes, some of this is important.  But we adults have learned to balance our lives, and it’s imperative to teach our children to do the same.  And a big part of that includes independent playtime.

Have you ever said out loud, “I’m worried because my child plays by himself a lot?”  As a preschool teacher, I tell my parents that a child learns to play in three stages:  Independent play, parallel play, and playing with friends.  I want to concentrate on independent playtime for this particular blog because many parents worry when they observe this behavior.

Some children are naturally comfortable playing on their own.  I see this with my 2-year-old grandson.  Often, he will walk away from a group and tinker away with something by himself.  Since he plays well with others when he wants, I am not concerned that his behavior is anti-social.  I see it as age-appropriate and a great thing. 

Solo playtime offers a child many opportunities for self-development.

When a child is young and there is a lot of activity going on around them, they may begin to feel overwhelmed.  I believe this is what motivates my grandson to walk away.  It gives him the opportunity for some peace and quiet, and to regroup.  We do this as adults.  So, for a child to master this, is a fabulous lifetime skill.

Critical thinking and self-confidence skills are vital to a child’s growth.  If parents are always there to solve their problems, they won’t learn how to fix things themselves.  Nor will they acquire the patience to stick to finding a solution.  And it’s so fun to watch them figure it out on their own.  My three-year-old grandson wanted to turn on a light switch he couldn’t reach.  He grabbed a Styrofoam workout roller and used that to flip the toggle!  He was very proud of himself for solving the problem.  And so was I!

Children also need to figure out how to entertain themselves constructively, so they don’t go looking for trouble.  Books, puzzles, and building things are perfect self-entertaining activities.

It goes without saying that imagination play has a major role in a child’s development.  When they constantly play with others, their free-thinking skills are unable to flow organically.  My youngest son had such a great imagination.  I always said I could put him in an empty room, and he would figure out a way to entertain himself.  And that has served him well to this day.

If it is vital for our little ones to play alone, where and how do we begin to implement this in our daily lives?

  1. Start early!  Even with a baby you can help them develop independent skills.  Laying your little one on an activity mat gives them a lot of stimulation and alone time—even though you are close by.
  2. Ease into it.  If independent play is new for your toddler, don’t expect them to love the idea at first.  Put out a few of their favorite toys, or maybe some paper and crayons.  Stay close by and find something to do, like fold the laundry or read a magazine.  They can see you are busy, yet still close by.  If they ask you to join them, explain why you can’t but will soon.  Depending on the age of the child do it for like 5 minutes the first time and extend the time from there.
  3. Make a quiet play space for them.  It doesn’t have to be permanent if you don’t have the room.  Just make it something inviting.  Even laying a cozy blanket in the corner of the room with a few toys will do the trick.
  4. We all have toy pieces around that can’t seem to find their original home.  At school, we put them all in a basket and bring them out when a child needs some independent time.  They love digging through it and coming up with new ways to play with these miscellaneous items.

As parents, we tend to put our children’s needs above our own.  I still do this, and my kids are adults!  By teaching a child to play independently, you help them fulfill a major developmental skill.  That said, there is another major benefit to all this—YOU get some downtime!!!!!  Everyone needs a break.  But if you’re like me and feel guilty about taking that time, think of it this way: You are setting a great example for your child.  They see you enjoy your time alone and that it’s okay not to have someone with you 24/7 to be happy.

At the end of the day, you want your child to find balance in life, to understand that whether alone or with a friend, they can be self-confident and happy.

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