Inside: Support, guidance, and an action plan if your child struggles with independent play.
What if your child won’t play independently?
Play and childhood are nearly synonymous.
Peas and carrots. Two parts of the same horse. It’s the battle cry of early childhood experts with the saying “Play is the work of childhood” (Jean Piaget) plastered around like a cliche bumper sticker.
But what if play isn’t so easy at your house?
What if your child struggles to play without your support?
What if “independent play” rarely or never happens?
This is the blog post for you.
Phrases like “let them play” and “kids should be playing” out effortlessly, but rarely information on how to let kids play comes with it. For some children, independent play is easier said than done.
I’d like to help you with that.
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First: quick context and FAQ on independent play
Having talked with literally a million parents on this topic for years, we must start at the FAQs rather than leave those at the end. Let’s all get on the same page and answer some questions right away:
What is “independent play?”
A child plays independent of an adult. Play could be with a peer or sibling or truly “independent.”
When can “independent play” start?
Birth. Children can learn from birth to self-entertain and be with their own thoughts. A baby on a play mat looking contently at a mirror is deep in their own version of play. I’m going to get into more specifics on how to build this skills with kids later in the post, but please know that there is no “too young” for play.
What other terms are synonymous with “independent play?”
Two other terms get tossed around a lot, all meaning the same thing: free play and unstructured play.
What’s a good definition for independent/unstructured/free play?
Free, unstructured and independent play is anything a child chooses to do without an adult’s help or interference and that the child likes doing. It’s their preferred activity on their own (or with peers).
This play happens when a child plays on their own free will, independent of any expectations, and without from adult assistance (Ginsburg, 2007; Gray, 2017; Yarmon, 2018).
Does this apply to only-kids?
Yes. 100x yes. Only-children also need to play independently. Whether there are siblings or no siblings, a child’s job is play and they learn skills best in play when an adult is NOT intervening.
I also encourage folks to remember that having siblings does not mean a child has someone to always play with or never plays alone. For many reasons, such as age gaps, interests, personality, and schedules, sibling does not equal “never plays alone.”
Busy Toddler’s Parenting Book is Here!
Busy Toddler’s Guide to Actual Parenting: From Their First “No” to Their First Day of School (and Everything in Between)
Why go to such lengths to help a child play independently?
Kids need this kind of play for their development. Although they won’t die from a lack of play, like they could from lack of food or water, play drives all sorts of development in childhood – it’s importance cannot be overlooked or overstated (Gray, 2015).
There is a reason education experts, pediatricians, and scientists push for free play: it is the backbone of childhood development (Yarmon et al, 2015).
Many skills that children develop are best learned in play, only learned in play, or dramatically improved in play (Gray, 2015). Play is worth this fuss.
It is also worth it for YOU as the caregiver and your needs
Adulting is hard work. Caregiving/parenting is hard work. Running a household is hard work. Having a 9-5 job is hard work. We are in the middle of countless amounts of hard work.
We have jobs, upon jobs, upon jobs and many of those jobs can/need to be done while children are playing. If I say yes to every play invitation from my children or if I needed to sit with them all day to ensure they played, it would create a ripple effect in my life and business that I cannot fathom.
It would add untold amounts of stress, pressure, and anxiety trying to accomplish all my adult tasks while my children slept – instead, I get much of life done while they play.
I want this for you to: to be able to unload a dishwasher, answer an email, or cook a meal without feeling the guilt or pressure to facilitate play.
My children having independent play skills is critical for their life and mine, too.
The blueprint to independent play
If play isn’t going well at your house…
If your child will not play without your full engagement…
If you find yourself sacrificing your jobs to be your child’s play facilitator (whether they are an only child or one with siblings)…
Here are my tried and true tips for helping grow this skill at your house. It takes time. Rome and play skills were not built overnight. The pay off is huge and critical. Let’s get to it.
Build play into your daily routine.
Kids like routines, they flourish in them. While we are quick to schedule time for clubs, classes, sports, and all sorts of enrichment activities, are you scheduling time for play?
Consider this: When play time is random, for differing amounts of time, and usually when a parent is frustrated and says “just go play!!” It doesn’t make play sound too inviting or something worth investing time in.
But if play is valued and given a space in the daily schedule, it becomes something kids can count on and the skills develop. When we set time for play and make it a valued part of the day, then play has a better chance of happening.
Start with 5 min increments.
Play skills are like running a marathon and I’m not about to run into 26.2 miles tomorrow without training. Kids and play are the same. They need to train into this skill and see immediate success.
Over a few days, build up and expand the amount of time your child is playing independently – stamina is everything. And we must remember that play begets play: they’ll play longer and better the more and more they have the chance.
I strongly recommend using a visual timer, like this one.
I repeat: DO NOT INTERRUPT PLAY (McNair, Cameron, & Gilbertson, 2019).
When you do see your playing or being fine alone without you, don’t interrupt them. It’s so easy to see kids in play and want to let them know we see them, how good they’re doing or ask them about their play.
Don’t do this.
It breaks their concentration and it’s like interrupting them mid sentence. Think of how much we hate being interrupted… kids feel the same way when their play is cut into.
If you said you can’t play, you can’t play. I know this is hard.
Please, please, please: stick with and honor YOUR boundary. We do not have to RSVP yes to every play invitation from our children – we may be busy, tired, or simply unavailable.
If they ask and you say, “No thanks, I’m folding laundry,” finish your laundry before checking on them. If they choose to sit on the floor and watch you fold laundry in protest, fine. That’s their choice. You told them yours.
Honor what you said, and connect with them when you finish your job. Show them that you are true to your word.
Eventually, as you stick to your play boundary more and more, they’ll know you are serious. They’ll know you really aren’t going to stop your job to play right then and they’ll figure out that going off to play might be a better idea than laying in the hallway holding a vigil.
Play is NOT the only way to build a relationship with a child.
Somehow the idea that the parent-child relationship can only grow through play came to the forefront of parenting. THIS IS NOT TRUE.
There are lots of ways to connect with your child without impacting their independent playtime:
Play is not the only way to love on kids.
Your child may need to play in the same room you’re working in.
That’s ok! Bring their blocks into the kitchen. Move some dolls where you’ll be folding. Set a bin by your work computer. Playing independently doesn’t have to mean “playing where they can’t be seen.”
Toys are the tools of a child’s play.
Toys are not just “things” for kids to have. They are the vehicles of play. We must take our choices in toys seriously (note: this doesn’t mean expensive, wooden, trendy toys. A toy’s price does not determine it’s value to play). Toys are tools.
RELATED: Here is my essay on toys and best toys list, explaining why it is so important that we take toys seriously.
Your child can find their independent play skills.
This is possible. It can be done. It will take work, it will take time, and it will take more than just hoping for it to happen.
Independent play is so important for the development of children AND for their parents/caregivers. It’s worth working for.
Do you have play tips? Can you help another person out? Share what’s worked in your home to support your child’s development of independent play skills.
Ginsburg, K. R. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong Parent-Child bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1), 182–191. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2006-2697
Gray, P. (2015). Free to Learn (1st ed.). Basic Books.
Gray, P. (2017). What exactly is play, and why is it such a powerful vehicle for learning? Topics in Language Disorders, 37(3), 217–228. https://doi.org/10.1097/tld.0000000000000130
McNair, L., Cameron, I., & Gilbertson, L. (2019). Adult roles in support of early childhood play, encouraging sensitivity to the individual and reflexive approaches. Scottish Educational Review, 51(2), 61–70. https://doi.org/10.51166/ser/512mcnairetal
Yogman, M., Garner, A., Hutchinson, J., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., Baum, R., Gambon, T., Lavin, A., Mattson, G., Wissow, L., Hill, D. L., Ameenuddin, N., Chassiakos, Y. L. R., Cross, C., Boyd, R., Mendelson, R., Moreno, M. A., Radesky, J., Swanson, W. S., . . . Smith, J. (2018). The power of play: A pediatric role in enhancing development in young children. Pediatrics, 142(3). https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2018-2058