Thursday, May 16, 2013

Simple Tips for Helping Toddlers Play Independently

Inside: Eight simple tips to help your toddler play independently!

How can you teach your toddler to play independently?

We are entering into a new stage at our house where my five-year-old likes to spend hours playing Legos in his room. Meanwhile, I have the toddler and the baby hanging out with me while I am trying to manage household chores, preschool committee responsibilities, church assignments, and playing with them a little bit (or at least paying attention to them) all at the same time. The baby is just happy to chew on a toy or roll around, but my toddler needs a little more guidance.

I am slowly putting together a repertoire of activities and ideas to help my toddler play independently while I am trying to get other things done in the same room or close by.

Today I have 8 tips for you to help your toddler play independently!

Today I am going to share some simple tips for helping toddlers play independently and then tomorrow I am going to share a few simple activities that I have taught my toddlers to do independently.  

Although I would love to just say, "the dishes can wait, my kids are only young once" and play all day with them... there comes a time when the dishes or laundry actually have to get done AND little ones need to learn to either join in and help with chores or just go play! I know this only because I have seriously had a dish line take up the entire counter and there is no better way to kill creativity than to have a disaster of a kitchen or a house! I wish that I could just clean at night after the kids are in bed and play all day with them... but the reality is that I am too tired most nights or have preschool or church meetings (or just want some down time), so I've decided to make independent playtime work.

There are loads of great tips and resources online to use as you try to have fun and include your children as you work on household chores. 

Here are a few of my favorite cleaning ideas with kids...

I'll be honest with you though... sometimes it is just easier to get the kiddos occupied so that I can organize and do jobs that I need to do without any helpers! I can only fold and refold laundry so many times before it drives me bonkers.

This is where independent playtime comes in!

Here are eight tips for helping your child play independently...

1. Sit down and play next to them before you attempt to get anything done. 

After I've connected with my toddler through play, she often feels so comfortable and confident that she will play independently for 20-30 minutes without any prompting from me. Play matters! Spend time in uninterrupted play with your child for a little bit before trying to get your stuff done. 

2. If your child needs prompting, help your child practice playing independently while you are with them. 

Don't be too fun and don't engage with your child too much. Just model how to do it by quietly playing by yourself next to them. Model how to drive cars around or new and interesting ways to build towers with blocks. Model how to make a mistake and fix it yourself, model how to make dolls converse, model how to pick up and start something new, etc. Your kids are watching and they'll probably copy some of the ways you play.

3. Afterwards, give specific positive comments to your child related to how they are playing independently. 

For example: "Ryan, I love how you are working so hard to build that train track all by yourself." They will recognize that doing things independently is a positive thing and want to do it more! Avoid just saying "good job" or saying they are a "good boy" since those comments aren't specific and don't help reinforce the specific things you'd like them to continue doing. Also avoid constantly praising or interrupting play! Often kids are playing nicely by themselves and we ruin it by jumping in. I love the reminder that play is the work of children. We don't like being interrupted when we work... and neither do they! If there is a natural opportunity to praise or comment, go for it. If not, wait till the creative playtime is over and don't interrupt the magic.

4. After a little while of practicing, take brief breaks from playing next to your child (2-3 minutes max) and go do a quick task while staying in the same room with your child. 

Increase the length of adult task time over time. Some kids will play for 20 minutes + all by themselves from the beginning... and others will have a longer adjustment time and need to start with shorter practice periods. 

5. Keep independent practice times short and successful. 

Start by doing 5 minute independent play periods, then 7 minutes, then 10, and onward. Try to end practice times before they start to go downhill. My five year old now begs for independent time because it doesn't happen all the time and because it is the perfect length (after lots of trial and error).  

6. Independent doesn't mean unattended or abandoned. 

I am almost always in the same room or the room next to my toddler when we are both doing independent activities. Don't sneak out of the room or away from your child. Be very clear and let them know that they are doing their work and you need to do your work for a few minutes. There is something really cozy about being in the room together both creating and doing our own thing.

7. Have special activities or materials that kids can only use during independent time. 

Or let them choose a special toy/activity to do in a special location only during independent time. Make it feel different and they will think it is cool. I like to let my daughter choose a special toy from her brother's room and bring it downstairs. She seems to think she is being sneaky (even though I tell her brother ahead of time), and has so much fun playing with the new toy. I also love these independent time tubs by I Can Teach My Child and I also shared some special activities in this quiet time activities post.

8. Take time to just observe {and put down your camera}.

I regularly just put aside my chores or assignments and watch my daughter play independently. I love to see how her play develops, listen to the conversations she has with her animals, and notice which toys she is most interested in. By taking time to observe, I can tweak independent time and make it more fun for her by adapting our activities to fit her interests and newly developing skills. I also learn a lot about my own parenting skills by listening to the conversations she has with her dolls. :) I also have to remind myself not to snap photos. Some moments just need to be enjoyed and observed, not photographed.

I'm sure many of these tips are ones you already know. This list is definitely not complete. What else would you add? 

If you are looking for some great toys to foster independent play, I shared four favorite toys for semi-independent play that you might want to check out.

Don't forget to come back on Friday and join in the conversation as I share a few simple activities that I have taught my toddlers to do independently.


  1. Nice ideas! My two-year old has just started playing independently more and more. I agree, sitting down and starting an activity together really helps!

  2. These are great tips! I'm really just starting to try these things with my son who is almost 21 months. I've found that certain old school toys (no batteries) like stacking cups and big blocks work the best with him. He's very patient and gets very involved in building and stacking with only these, whereas any other toy is only interesting for 20 seconds.

  3. Wow! These are excellent tips! I have been looking for articles like this and I am so glad I came across your post. This is, by far, the best that I've ever read when it comes to parenting toddlers. I really learned a lot from this post and I will definitely put your tips to good use. :)

  4. Thanks for the tips! My 18 month-old just started playing independently but I want him to have more fun while doing so!

  5. I like your point that we really do need to clean. I think it's important to be realistic, and not pressured by guilt.

    1. I think you can admit that sometimes we just need alone time too, not because we have to tend to a chore. I hope you don't feel overly guilty about taking time to do things you like! It is good for kids to play independently to strengthen their own selves and creativity!

  6. Ooh, just found this now - thanks so much for including our Little Helpers ideas! Great post - pinning now!

  7. Great tips! One thing I've learned from my son is that he loves to mimic me. I work from home so during the day I do have to get on the computer. My son has a work table in which he does all of his crafts and eats his snacks. When I'm on the computer, he know's it's work time, so he goes to work too. Right now, he feels that his job is to build legos at his work table. So together, he and I both go to work.

  8. Great list! So hard to just enjoy and be in the moment.

  9. Loved it. Sometimes we just forget the simple stuff. It works best. P.S. I hope your dish line is gone now :)

  10. I appreciate that you commented on the fact that housework must be done. My first job is as wife/mother, but as a stay at home mom, I'm also the household manager. That means I need to clean sometimes. I dislike being made to feel guilty for asking kids to be "independent" while I do the things I need to do. You strike such a lovely balance.

  11. I wanted to hug you when you said, "I have seriously had a dish line take up the entire counter." It makes me feel so much better that I just spent the entire day (while trying to entertain/have my 18 mo old entertain himself) as I cleaned up my own dish line that took up the entire counter. I love spending my days with my boy, but when the housework piles up, this mama gets cranky.

  12. I love this, great list! We're also in a similar place with a preschooler who plays alone and a toddler who needs support playing sometimes. One other tip I would add is when possible not to interrupt your toddler when they have self-initiated independent play. I know it sounds silly, but sometimes I've caught myself interrupting my younger son (almost 2) to show him something (like how a toy works, another piece he could use, etc.) and then later wonder why I interrupted his natural flow into independent play. But sometimes it does have to be interrupted for routine or safety reasons too.

  13. Good tips! Thank you for sharing this blob post.


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