Does your child struggle to play without adult help? Does it feel like they won’t play unless you play too? This post is for you. It’s filled with 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” are shouted out effortlessly, but rarely information on how to get kids to play comes with it. For some children, independent play is easier said than done.
I’d like to help you with that.
Looking for more structure each day?
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Start here – this is the play information you need
Having talked with literally a million parents on this topic for years, we have to start with a few 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 skill with kids later in the post, but please know that there is no “too young” for independent 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).
Remember, independent doesn’t mean unsupervised and dangerous. A child can be playing independently in the same room as an adult, if needed.
Does this apply to single children families?
Yes. 1000 x yes. Children from single-child families 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.
And parents who have a single child still have adult jobs and tasks to do throughout a day and, just like parents with multiple kids, cannot drop all those roles to spend the entire day playing.
I also encourage folks to remember that having siblings does not mean a child always has someone to play with with or never plays alone.
For many reasons, such as age gaps, interests, personality, and schedules, having a sibling does not equal “never plays alone.”
I wrote a parenting book!
Check out “Busy Toddler’s Guide to Actual Parenting” for advice from tabies to big kids
Why is independent play important?
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.
Independent play also supports caregivers
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.
Look at your daily schedule and find ONE place play could fit in routinely. For my family, after breakfast has always been a great spot.
Tomorrow, tell your child, “After breakfast each day will be your play time. I’ll be doing (insert any one of the many tasks you have to do) while you play. We can hang out together after that.”
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.
Set a timer for 5 minutes of alone play. Let your child know you’ll be busy and can’t play. “I’m unloading the dishwasher, your job is to play without me for the next 5 minutes.”
When the time is up, honor your word and go check on them. They may be ready to reconnect with you or to keep playing alone. You’ll have to judge that in the moment.
I strongly recommend using a visual timer, like this visual timer on Amazon.
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.
Wait until the play is over to chat with them. That’s the right time to let them know what you saw, ask your questions, compliment their play, etc. Play stamina is best built without our interjections so avoid the interrupting trap and let playing kids play.
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.
You don’t need to say “Yes to play.” You do need to stick to your boundary.
If you aren’t available, you aren’t available. Period. You’ll be available later.
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 and is a major contributing factor to parent burn out and guilt.
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.
Schedule in other connection times either before or after play.
We want to build relationships with our children, but we don’t need to use play exclusively. We have so many other options that are just as valid and may be more in your wheelhouse.
Your child may need to play in the same room you’re working in.
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.”
Know your child and support their needs for connection.
If your child isn’t comfortable being in a playroom without you, invite them to bring a few toys to where you will be. Let’s be accommodating in this skill building process.
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.
1. Check the toy bins and get rid of broken toys, toys with missing parts, and toys that are cluttering up the bin (I’m looking at you Happy Meal toys…).
2. Look at the toys your child actually plays with vs what is not used anymore, too young, too old, or they can’t use it without an adult’s help. Donate those toys.
3. Make sure kids can SEE toys. The small appliances you use in the kitchen are the ones you can see. You forget to use the others. That’s how toys are. If kids can’t see it, they won’t remember it, and they won’t use it. Make sure toys are visible.
4. Along the same kitchen lines, think how frustrating it is when you desperately need a tool and open the drawer to find a cluttered mess of every tool since college… Kids feel the same thing with toys. If a child can’t find a toy to play with, if they get overwhelmed, if they get stressed making a choice… these are all reasons they give up on play.
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.
Frequently Asked Questions
No. It’s never too late for kids to learn the skill of play. It may take some extra time to end the habit of relying on an adult for play, but this absolutely can happen. Children need the skills formed in play, and need the opportunity to acquire them.
I look at play like food: I know how to provide nutritional food for my children and what their bodies need to develop best. While they’d like to have candy all day long, I know that’s not best. So if I have a child refusing play, I know what’s best. We are going to keep working on getting nutritional play into their bodies to help them develop, same as I do with food.
Unless Grandparents are daily caregivers, it’s fine for them to build their relationship through play and won’t undermine your systems at home. It’s similar to food. Grandma may provide ice cream at breakfast, but that doesn’t mean I will at home nor will it be the every day norm.
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