Motherhood - Parenting

Teach Your Child to Play Independently (without screens!)

It doesn’t matter if you’re a stay at home mom or day or a working parent. Sometimes it just feels like our kids are constantly attached to us, am I right? It’s important to teach your child to play independently for the benefit of both of you!

We ALL need some time alone. I don’t care if it’s because you want to get the dishes done or if you just want to sit down with a cup of coffee and read for 20 minutes in the morning. You deserve it and your child deserves the ability to play alone!

So let’s talk about how to encourage your child to play independently.

Is it ok to let my child play alone?

Of course it is! We all need alone time. You need it and so does your kid. Letting them play alone encourages independence and confidence. It’s a time for them to really just be in their own imagination. I love watching my kids play by themselves!

When can a child play by themselves?

You can start letting them play alone when they’re babies. With my son I started when he was a newborn. Of course he wasn’t really playing, but I would let him just be without directly interacting with him for short periods of time while I folded laundry or did something in the same room, occasionally leaving the room for a few minutes (while he was somewhere safe of course).

The sooner you start leaving your kids to entertain themselves the more natural it will be to them, so don’t feel bad that you’re not in your baby’s face 24/7 entertaining them.

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Tips for encouraging independent play

Left her to play independently while I vacuumed. She fell asleep!

Start them early

Like I mentioned above, the sooner you can start your baby playing by themselves the better. Some days they may need you more than others, but if you’re consistent they will get used to being on their own for short bursts of time.

Have a safe space for independent play

It’s important to have somewhere safe for your child to be when they’re playing alone. What kind of a space will depend on the age and the child. My son was never all that mischievous so he pretty much had run of our babyproofed house from the get go. Our daughter on the other hand would manage to find a way to hurt herself or cause some sort of chaos so that method doesn’t work for her.

Create a space that you can leave your child (even if you aren’t leaving the room) where they can play independently and safely.

Play with them first

The way independent play often starts in our home is with one of us playing with the kids. We sit down and play or read books and once they’re happy with the interactions they’ve had with us they kind of start to play on their own. I find that if I sit down and give them my full attention first, independent play comes more easily than if I just try to tell them to go play by themselves for a while without spending that time with them.

Get them started

Sometimes it’s helpful to sit down and start something with them and then slowly back off as you let them take over. For example, sitting down and helping build a lego garage for my sons cars can easily lead to him playing with it for an hour on his own.

Have special toys or activities ready

If you really need some time to get something done or to just take a breather it can be nice to have an activity or toy that is not normally out. Because it’s something a little more special it’s more likely your child will play with it longer and with more excitement. For us water beads, kinetic sand and play dough fill this need.

Try taking them outside

Depending on how your home is set up, try suggesting some outside play. This is always a good way to get my kids in the zone to play by themselves or with each other. I can see them from the kitchen and living room windows if I need to be inside and just keep the screen door open.

My kids will play for hours with their water table. I picked mine up for $5 at goodwill years ago and it’s pretty beat up, but they still love it. This is the one we have, but there are so many cool options out there.

Stay nearby, but busy

I don’t know about your kids, but if mine see me sitting on my phone or watching TV they will come to me. But if I’m busy doing something else they’re more likely to not notice me as much. If I can glance over and give them a smile or an acknowledgement once in a while it seems to encourage them to continue playing.

Catalina will put stuff in and out of laundry baskets all day. Does it mean I have to clean up after? Sure, but that’s ok!

Never interrupt independent play

Am I the only one who will creep around the corner and watch my kids play by themselves? I think it’s the sweetest thing to watch. But unless there’s a real need like bedtime or we need to leave the house, I’ll never interrupt independent play. Just like you don’t wake a sleeping baby!

Let them make a mess

The kind of play that keeps my kids busy the longest is usually something that needs to be cleaned up afterwards. It’s ok to let them get messy – it’s part of childhood! If I need to sacrifice 10 minutes of cleaning up for even 20 or 30 minutes of time to myself? Worth it!

Related: How to keep a clean house with toddlers

It’s ok to say “no” or “not right now”

Don’t feel guilty rejecting their requests to play sometimes. Of course play with your kids as much as you can, but we all need a break. It’s ok to tell your kids “I can’t play right now” or “Maybe in 20 minutes we can read some books”. There’s nothing wrong with letting them know that while you love them, you can’t always drop everything and entertain them.

Try a routine

When it was just my son and I home all day we had a definite routine. Every morning we would get up and he would play by himself while I made breakfast, we’d eat together and then he’d play again while I tidied the kitchen and did some quick cleaning around the house.

This is something we started when he was just a little baby and I would sit his cute butt on a blanket on the floor nearby or in a bouncy seat. Think of a certain time of day you’d like to regularly have a few minutes to yourself and see if you can create a routine.

Sometimes they just won’t play independently they’ll swarm you at your desk while you’re trying to work and that’s ok. They’ll only be little and love you this much for a short time. Let yourself enjoy it :)

Be flexible

Sometimes they just won’t be in the mood and will keep coming back to you wanting to be near you and interacting with you. That’s ok! You can try again later. Giving them the confidence that you will be there when they need you will help them know that they can play alone and you’ll be there if they need you.

Letting kids learn to play alone is great! I sometimes do feel mom guilt when they’re playing alone just because that mom guilt is always finding silly things to make me feel bad about. But really, teaching independence and confidence to play by themselves is a gift you’re giving your child.

Teaching them that someone will be there 24/7 to make sure they’re entertained when that’s just not reality isn’t going to help them one bit.

Teach your child to play independently without screens
How to teach your toddler to play independently without screens

What do you think? Do your kids play by themselves or do they struggle a bit?

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