3 Easy Ways to Teach Your Child to Play by Themselves

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Which of the following describes your child:

A. My child constantly needs my attention, he is unable to entertain himself.
B. My child moves quickly from one activity or toy to the next, not able to focus or maintain her attention for more than a couple minutes at a time.
C. My child doesn’t know how to play with his toys – the toys end up all over the place and he isn’t engaging in sustained imaginative play.
D. All of the above!

With the increase of technology and the fast-paced nature of the world today, it’s becoming more and more common that our kids just don’t know how to play. Kids are more clingy, unable to entertain themselves, and feel stressed when mom or dad aren’t available to play.

Play is natural and motivating for children, but it is HARD WORK. It takes creativity, active thinking, and problem solving. Play isn’t a passive activity like watching television. If you start to see your child falling into a pattern of needing constant entertainment, it may be time to start implementing some of these easy strategies to help teach your child how to play by themselves.

1. Create an invitation to play.

An “invitation to play” is the way in which a parent sets up the environment in order to inspire their child’s imaginative play.

Have you ever noticed that when you suggest a play activity to your child, it automatically sounds unappealing?

“Why don’t you play with your blocks?”
“Do you want to color?
“Let’s go outside and play in the sand.”

Most children will say “no” to these plans simply because it wasn’t their idea.

Creating an invitation to play means making these suggestions through the set-up of the environment, in such a way that it makes children think it is their idea. When children are able to freely choose an activity without a parent saying it, it becomes so much more valuable to them.

So the night before when your child is asleep, go into the living room and look at the toys available to your child. Are there too many toys? Are they at your child’s eye level? The more open ended the toys are, the better. Children will only play for a short time with toys that only have one purpose.

If all of the toys are in bins and buckets, your child is probably going to have a hard time getting started with play (and is more likely to start dumping out the buckets!). Try setting up some of your child’s blocks in the formation of a house or city, and put their toy cars and people nearby. In another area of the room, put out some baby dolls and scarves to inspire dramatic play. This doesn’t need to be complicated or elaborate, even a very simple set-up can inspire long periods of independent play. Here are some play set-ups to get you started:

      An easy and inviting setup with wooden blocks, a firetruck, garbage truck, and digger.

Use any basket to create a bed for a baby or stuffed animals. Play scarves are excellent for open-ended dramatic play – they can be used as a blanket, a cape, anything your child can think of!

A picnic set up with pretend play food, child-sized dishes/utensils, and pretend play money.

My son’s absolute favorite play theme – animals! There are endless ways to play with these animals and it is by far the toys that hold his attention the longest.

Try to create play spaces based on your child’s interests – this is the best way to keep your child engaged for longer periods of time.

Check out: Top 5 Wooden Learning Toys for Toddlers

2. Set clear boundaries, and stick to them.

For some children, creating an invitation to play will be all your child needs to get started with playing independently. For others, it may take more explicit and clear boundaries on your parent. Start with small time increments when you are not available to play, and then work your way up. For example you can say, “I’m going to cut some vegetables for dinner, and when I’m all done I will come and see what you’ve built.” Stay firm that you are going to finish this task before you are going to play.

Some children would especially benefit from the use of a timer during times when you aren’t available, to give them a sense of how long they need to wait. You can say, “Mommy is going to do some work for 10 minutes. I’m going to set the timer and when you hear the timer beep, mommy will be ready to play with you.”

Once your child understands that you will be available to them after a certain amount of time, you can slowly start to increase the time as their independent play improves. This ability to wait (delayed gratification) is hugely important to your child’s overall development.

3. Make sure the activities are meeting your child’s needs.

One of the biggest reasons that children struggle with independent play is because the toys or activities aren’t meeting their needs. If your child needs lots of movement, then fine motor manipulatives or block play probably isn’t going to last very long. Try providing a ball or a mini trampoline instead. If your child is really seeking a lot of sensory input, a water table may provide longer periods of independent play than a coloring book and crayons. If you’ve had a busy morning running errands, your child may be seeking some quiet book reading to settle down.

In general, younger toddlers and preschoolers generally seek a lot of movement and sensory, while older preschoolers are more likely to seek out dramatic and imaginative play. Young children’s needs are always changing, so being attuned to what your child’s behavior is telling you is critical in knowing how to help them stay regulated.

Independent play is the foundation of children’s ability to pay attention, focus, and follow a plan from beginning to end – all valuable skills for future learning in school. Teaching your child to play independently is also the best way to gain some time in your day to get other tasks done, without resorting to screen time.

 

Now it’s your turn! What strategies have you used to increase your child’s ability to play on their own? Or, what strategy are you going to try at home with your little ones? Let me know in the comments below!

13 thoughts on “3 Easy Ways to Teach Your Child to Play by Themselves

  1. These are great tips. It was important for me to start my son rather early with independent play time. I was working full-time and I couldn’t always come home and entertain him. He is so independent and loves to be creative. It has great benefits!

  2. I love this! My oldest has always been entertained by my husband and her mother and her grandparents… so she never learned to play on her own. We have been working with her to help her develop the ability to do so with minimal fuss. It’s slow going. My youngest is only 8 months, so it is still key that we play with her more to develop key skills but I will be using your tips with her!

  3. Wonderful article!!! I love the tips and techniques!
    I also like to start play and then walk away for a bit. Help them get started with a block building making homes for the animals then, step away to complete a take, and see if they can take that “play spark” and create more with it. Tucking toys away and bringing them out later always seems to generate new excitement and interest.

    1. Thank you so much!! I love the ideas you mentioned- I especially like the idea of lighting a “play spark.” Sometimes they just need that inspiration to get started 🙂 Rotating toys is also a super important one. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Can you give us details about the dollsize tree house in the picture above point number 3? I love it! Been looking for something like this for my son but most houses this size are pink, 🤷‍♀️. Would love something like this. These are such helpful ideas! I’m working on this with my 2 year old son. It’s getting better but he still wants me to be his constant playmate or he wants to be my constant helper!

    1. Absolutely 🙂 It’s from Lakeshore Learning and it’s called the “Giant Treehouse.” My son loves it! And I love that it’s gender neutral and will last a long, long time. Thanks for your comment!

  5. I wish I had read an article with this advice years ago. My daughter is an only child and I think the guilt of knowing she would never have a sibling, and not living close to any children her age, led me to feel responsible for being her “playmate”. She is now 9 and is still very dependant on us for her entertainment. I have tried to avoid the trap of excess screen time, limiting her to 30 minutes a day with the exception of some age appropriate shows. She’s extremely intolerant to boredom and immediately starts in with the whining. We don’t reward it with entertainment but suggest things for her to do which, of course, she never likes. Do you have any ideas/suggestions on teaching her age group to entertain herself?

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