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  • Dr. Amber Ufford

Encouraging Independent Play

If you know anything about me, you know that I love to talk about the importance of playing with your child! However, as busy parents we know that we can't spend all of our time playing with your children -- we have other equally important obligations and things to do! (And yes, sometimes we just want a break!)

While structured activities and adult-guided play have their place, fostering independence in play allows children to develop essential skills and qualities that will benefit them throughout their lives.

Young child lying on the ground playing with lego trucks

The Importance of Independent Play

Independent play nurtures a child's creativity, imagination, and problem-solving abilities. When children engage in unstructured playtime, they have the freedom to explore their interests, experiment with different ideas, and make decisions on their own. This process not only sparks creativity but also builds confidence as children realize their capabilities and learn to trust their instincts.

Moreover, independent play teaches children invaluable life skills such as time management, decision-making, and resourcefulness. Without constant adult intervention, children learn to entertain themselves and find solutions to challenges they encounter during play. These experiences lay the foundation for resilience and adaptability, qualities that are crucial for success in adulthood.

Development of Independent Play

Independent play develops gradually as your child gets older. Like all other milestones, the age range during which each child is able to play for hours on their own differs from one child to another. Typically, infants between the ages of 6 - 12 months might be able to play by themselves for a few minutes (2 - 5 minutes) at a time. Younger toddlers can play independently for only about 5 - 10 minutes, while older toddlers may be able to play for 5 - 15 minutes by themselves. As your child enters preschool, they may be able to play for 15 - 20 minutes, and Kindergarteners are generally able to play independently for about 15 - 30 minutes.

Taking Steps to Encourage Independent Play

Your child's temperament and personality will influence their ability to play on their own, though your own parenting strategies can influence this skill as well. I have found that teaching a child independent play is easier if they feel securely attached and know that they will still have the chance to play with their parent. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the first step in helping your child learn to play independently is to dedicate 1-1 "special time" each day to play with them. Once this has become a predictable part of your routine, you can follow the steps below to encourage more independent play:

  • After playing with your child 1-1, gradually move your body away and start doing something else while still in the room with them.

  • Next, find a reason to leave the room and warmly let your child know where you will be going. “Okay honey, I need to get a drink of water. I’ll be right back.” Or, “I’m going to go check on something really quickly.” Make the separation brief and return after 1-2 minutes. If they follow you, that’s okay. Keep trying over the next few days.

  • When you return, give them a big labeled praise for waiting patiently or playing by themselves. "Wow! I love that you were able to keep playing by yourself while I was in the other room."

  • Gradually make your separations longer and longer, making sure to always return and praise your child for playing by themselves.

  • This plan may take several days, so don’t give up. Over time, your child should begin to demonstrate more independent play.

If your child isn't yet ready to play independently, don't stress! They will get there eventually. For some children, it helps them feel safe to know that their parent is nearby, so even playing in the same room with you (while you are engaged with something else) is a great step towards independent play.

I hope these tips are helpful for you!

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