Do you spend your day trying to get your toddler to play by themselves? Even if it’s just for 5 minutes? It’s not selfish. And you’re definitely not alone.
If your toddler was able to play alone, you’d be able to work on your never-ending to-do list. You’d be able to keep on top of the household chores. Or get 5 minutes of peace to yourself. It’d help you feel less overwhelmed.
But how do you get them to do it?
In this blog post, I’ll share simple steps that’ll help you teach your toddler to play by themselves. Starting with how you can prepare for independent play. A guide on independent play time by age. As well as a planned strategy.
This gradual approach will take some time. But it’s something that you’ll both be happy with. Your child won’t feel frightened that you’ve left them. And you won’t feel guilty either.
But before we talk about the steps, let’s talk about what independent play is and why it’s important.
Is It OK For My Toddler to Play By Themselves?
You may have a severe case of mum guilt when trying to get your toddler to play by themselves. But you don’t need to fill your little ones day with structure and entertaining activities all the time.
Because playing alone is actually great for them. And you should encourage it.
In fact, many experts agree that there are lots of benefits to independent play. It helps little ones to build skills and develop their imagination. And alone time also makes them better learners when they get older.
Here are some of the other benefits of helping your toddler to play by themselves:
- Sets the stage for quiet time later down the line
- Lets your child explore at their own pace
- Teaches your little one to learn from their mistakes and makes them more resilient
- Helps your child to develop their imagination and creativity
And so much more.
What Does Playing Alone Look Like?
Independently play is when your little one is busy focusing on something on their own. It’s always something they’ve chosen to do themselves.
Watching a screen on playing on an iPad doesn’t count as solo play.
Let’s face it, letting them have screen time would help your toddler to play by themselves for ages. But it won’t help them build the different skills we mentioned before.
And here’s the other thing.
Your child won’t get bored if they’re watching TV or playing on a tablet.
But boredom can be a good thing.
Being bored forces your child to try new things. It develops their imagination and encourages them to take risks. This helps them to build confidence and self-esteem.
Want to know more? Check out this post about why boredom is good for your child.
Preparing For Independent Play
Before expecting your child to play alone, you’ll want to prepare. This involves
- Setting realistic expectations
- Going by your child’s interests
- Changing toys often
1. Set Realistic Expectations
Knowing how much independent play your child will be able to manage according to their age will help you to set realistic expectations.
As they get older, their attention span will improve. So they’ll happily play on their own for longer.
It’d be unrealistic to expect your 1 year old toddler to play by themselves for an hour. But it’d be perfectly reasonable to expect your 4 year old to do it.
Independent Play Time By Age
Here’s how long your little one will be able to play alone for.
- Age: 0-6 months old – up to 5 minutes
- Age: 6-12 months old – up to 15 minutes
- Age: 1 Year Old+ – up to 15 minutes
- Age: 18 months old – up to 20 minutes
- Age: 2 Years Old+ – 30 minutes or more
- Age: 3 Years Old – 45 minutes or more
- Age: 4 Years Old – At least an hour. Or for as long as they want to. But make sure you always have your eye on them.
These timings are to you a rough idea according to your child’s age/stage of development. You may find they like playing on their own for longer.
2. Go By Their Interests
Take your child’s interests into account. What fascinates them at the moment? Are they interested in putting things into containers? Do they love scooping and pouring?
Whatever it is, try to give them opportunities to do these sorts of things when they’re playing by themselves (as long as it’s safe of course!) They’ll play on their own for longer.
My 18 month old loves putting things into containers at the moment. He will independently play with dried pasta, saucepans and jugs for ages! So you could give this a go.
3. Change Their Toys
Changing your toddler’s toys often will help keep play exciting for them. This doesn’t mean you have to always buy them new ones though.
You can set up a system where you rotate their toys.
This involves choosing a small selection of toys each week. And boxing up the rest.
Your little one will be left with fewer toys to play with. But studies have shown that kids are actually happier with fewer toys!
Simple Steps to Encourage Your Toddler to Play By Themselves
Once you’ve prepared, it’s time to encourage your child to play on their own. Follow the steps below to get started.
1. Play Together Before Expecting Your Toddler to Play By Themselves
Power struggles often happen when your little one’s emotional bucket isn’t filled. In other words, they’re more likely to throw tantrums if they haven’t had enough attention. So give them attention and play together first.
Make an effort to do this every time before expecting them to play on their own.
2. Withdraw Slowly
Start slowly moving away when your child is engaged in their play. Then busy yourself with a book or another activity nearby.
Your little one will be so engrossed in their play, they won’t notice you’re not next to them. Don’t tell them you’re doing something else but make sure you stay in the room so they know where you are.
If your child notices and starts complaining, play with them some more. Then try moving away again.
3. Set a Timer
Once your child is playing on their own, set a timer. Start with small chunks of time first, then slowly build it up.
Go back and join them once it’s finished. But only if they ask you to. Don’t interrupt their play.
4. Play Together Then Repeat
Your little one will quickly get the hang of playing on their own. And they’ll learn to love it. But you’ve got to keep trying. So repeat the process throughout the day.
Things to Remember Once You’ve Got Your Toddler to Play By Themselves
Here are a few things to remember when your toddler is playing on their own.
It’s hard to stop yourself from praising your child when they’re finally playing on their own. But when it comes to independent play, you shouldn’t.
In fact, commenting on their play does the opposite of what you intended. It distracts them. Suddenly they’re not focused on their play anymore. They’re focused on YOU. And this will remind them that you’re not next to them.
Put Them Off If They Ask You to Play (Before the Time is Up)
If your toddler won’t play alone for long or if they keep asking you to play try putting them off. But, instead of saying no, tell them you will in a minute or 5 minutes. This will encourage them to play alone for a little bit longer.
Let Them Play Alongside You
If your child comes up to you and starts playing alongside you, let them. They may just want to be near you. They may not even expect you to interact with them. Just make sure you still try to focus on your own activity when they’re doing this.
Don’t Ignore Them
Don’t ignore your child if they’re trying to communicate with you. Help them if they need it or intervene if they’re getting frustrated.
Ignoring them or telling them to play on their own will only lead to tantrums.
So interact with them but stay where you are if possible. Keep going back to your own activity as much as possible. They won’t feel ignored, but they’ll soon get bored.
Remember to consistently make time for your toddler to play by themselves. Even at the weekends when the other parent is around.
Just remind them of the benefits of independent play. And share the strategies with them.
What to Do Once Your Toddler Is Able to Play Alone
When your child is used to playing alone in a safe space, it’s fine to leave the room. Just make sure your house is baby proofed and that your child is at least over 1 year old before you do this.
Even once you’ve taught your toddler to play by themselves, you’ll have days where they won’t want to do it. There are always days where they want to be around you all the time. Maybe they had a bad night. Perhaps they’re teething. Or they could be feeling unwell.
The sooner you spot it, the quicker you will accept that they’re unlikely to play alone that day.
Preparation is key when encouraging your child to play on their own. Make sure you set your expectations and take independent play time by age into account.
Once you’re prepared, follow the 4 simple steps. And don’t forget to follow the tips once your child is playing by themselves.
You shouldn’t feel guilty about encouraging your toddler to play by themselves. They’ll love solo play and will benefit from it.
People of all ages learn best when they discover things for themselves. Think about it, would you rather watch a boring presentation about how to do something? Or try and figure it out for yourself?
Kids feel exactly the same. So letting them play alone, allows them to work it out for themselves.