by Kathy Eugster, MA
Does your child have enough free time or “downtime” to engage in unstructured independent play? These days, parents feel obliged to fill up their children’s lives with enrichment and educational activities. Having a variety of interesting activities to participate in is beneficial for your child, however, too many structured activities can sometimes have unintended or negative consequences. Children need free and unstructured time on their own where they can choose what to do and how to do it.
Independent play is also known as unstructured play, free play, solo play, or self-directed play. This is play where your child has free and unstructured time, on their own, with no outside demands or distractions. With independent play, children can choose what to play without an adult’s help or interference as long as the play stays safe and non-destructive. An important point to remember here is that independent play is not unsupervised play and parents need to be available to monitor this type of play.
Independent play is very important for children’s healthy development and will help your child with building skills for:
Teaching children to play independently is important not only for their healthy development, but is also very helpful for busy parents! When your child is playing independently, you can focus on doing any of the million-and-one chores and tasks that face parents every day such as answering an e-mail, doing the laundry, preparing a meal, cleaning up, scheduling activities, sweeping the floor, paying bills, etc., etc., etc.
Independent play can start at any age. Babies and toddlers can engage in short periods of independent play. By age two, toddlers can play independently for around five minutes. Preschoolers ages three and four can play independently for about ten minutes. As children grow, they can engage for longer periods of time in independent play.
Some children struggle to play without adult help. Personality, temperament, and developmental factors all play a part in a child’s ability to play independently. I have put together a few tips below to help you encourage independent play in your child.
Start with child-directed playtime
First, start with parent-child playtime that is child-directed. Please see my Blog articles on child-directed play to get a better idea of how this special type of playtime between parent and child works. Child-directed play lets children take charge of the playtime and introduces them to the idea that they can decide what to do instead of being directed by you.
To begin, position yourself close to your child and at their level. Pay attention to and notice what your child is doing. The basic guidelines for child-directed play include the following:
- Watch your child play
- Refrain from suggesting activities or telling your child what to do
- Allow your child to lead the play and to decide what to do
- Allow your child to problem-solve
- Describe objectively out loud what you notice your child doing (“Now you are putting that block on the top.”)
- Paraphrase what your child is telling you (“You’re telling me that this dinosaur is going to live in that cave.”)
- Identify any feelings that you notice your child is expressing (“You’re happy to find that toy!” “That shark looks angry.”)
- Limit any unsafe or destructive behaviors
Gradually limit your involvement in the play
Gradually reduce what you are doing and saying to your child. Ideally, your child will start to become absorbed in what they are doing. This is when you can just sit silently beside your child. Then you can start moving further away. Some parents like to tell their child that they will be doing something else for a short period but they will be close by and their child can continue to play on their own.
Start slowly! When your child is absorbed in play, move away for only a few minutes, then return and continue playing together in a child-directed manner. Gradually increase the time you move away from your child and allow independent play to happen.
Independent play does not necessarily mean your child is separated or isolated from you. Your child can play independently and still be close to you. To begin with, you can stay close to your child while you do your own activity. Staying close by helps your child feel safe and secure and it allows them to focus on their play activity. You never want your child to feel banished or isolated as may happen when you send your child to their room to play on their own.
When your child is playing independently, avoid commenting on your child’s play or distracting your child. Let your child be fully engaged in their play. Don’t ask your child questions, praise your child, or make any comments or evaluations on what is going on in the play. This will only distract your child from becoming fully interested and absorbed in their independent play. Remember, independent play is different than parent-child play, where you and your child are interacting during the playtime.
Again, I want to remind you that independent play is not unsupervised play. Depending on your child you may even be out of sight, but no matter what, you are still monitoring your child and available if necessary.
Re-connect after independent play
After your child has been playing independently for a period of time, you may want to re-connect with them by engaging in parent-child play, either in a parent-directed or child-directed manner. Please see my Blog posts on parent-directed and child-directed play for more information on how to play with your child using these two different styles of play.
Here are a few other tips for Independent Play
For independent play, the play area needs to be safe and filled with age-appropriate and interesting toys that are easily accessible for your child and that they can manage and play with on their own without your help. More challenging toys should be saved for times when you can be involved in your child’s play.
The best toys for unstructured independent play are open-ended toys. That means that they can be used in many different ways, for example, cardboard boxes of various sizes, food containers, blocks, miniature figures or vehicles, dolls and stuffed animals, basic art materials, soft foam balls, and real life toys such as medical kits or play kitchen items. These kinds of toys allow children to use and develop their imaginative and creative skills.
For independent play, you want to limit any nearby possible distractions for your child such as TV or electronic games. It is best to keep all electronics and screens that would be distracting to your child turned off during this type of playtime. You want your child actively engaged in the toys and play materials, using both their brains and bodies during playtime.
You may want to re-introduce toys that you have put away for a while in order to spark your child’s interest. Or, you may want to have some “special” high-interest toys that you bring out only during independent play.
Don’t jump in too early if your child says they are bored or they don’t know what to do! It is very tempting for parents to try to entertain their children themselves or even to turn on screens or electronic devices, however, when children learn to manage feelings of boredom, they also develop skills that build persistence and creativity.
Acknowledge your child’s boredom by saying, “It sounds like you don’t know what to do, hmm, that’s tough; I wonder what you will decide to play with today.” If your child is really stuck, you can offer some brief suggestions, for example, “I remember yesterday you had fun with your stickers, or maybe you want to draw a picture for your stuffed animals today.”
If your child is consistently having problems initiating a play activity, you may want to begin by setting something up that you think would spark your child’s interest. When your child has engaged in the play activity, you can “back off” and let your child engage in independent play.
Children also enjoy participating in some of the practical things you are doing, for example preparing food, washing dishes, tidying up, and folding laundry. Please see my Blog, How Do You Mix Play with Chores? for ideas on how to support children in playing independently this way.
Make independent play a part of your daily routine. When your child is more familiar with this concept, you can even set a timer to indicate how long the independent play time will last. Remember though to have appropriate expectations for how long your child is able to play independently.
However, and this is important, please don’t abandon parent-child play for independent play! Yes, independent play is a useful skill for children to learn and it can be very helpful for busy parents, but it is parent-child play that will build strong relationships and support skill development for your child in areas that can only be accessed through interactive play between you and your child.
Copyright Kathy Eugster, MA, 2023.
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