Tips for Fostering Independent Play

toddler enjoying independent play

When my first child was 2, I found myself sitting on my couch during a playdate, nonchalantly sending her off to the playroom, while my friend’s son clung tightly to his mother’s side, pulling at her arm and refusing to move until she, too, came to the playroom. After much cajoling and a patient introduction to the toy options before him, she came back to her spot, only to be rejoined immediately. Her son sat in front of her, smiling broadly and setting up the game he wanted to play with her. She looked at her rapidly cooling tea, sent a longing glance in the direction of the playroom where she could hear my little one happily playing alone and faced me, a mix of emotions on her face. “How do you get her to do that?” I was so accustomed to a child fond of independent play that I had not considered what a gift it was.

Truth be told, though I’d been in early childhood education before I became a mother, I entered motherhood as awkwardly and with as many learning moments as the next person. So it was that I looked at my friend, whose child begged for fresh fruit and legumes rather than cheesy noodles, whose mastery of baby sign had fostered early language in her son when, at that time, all my child would do was grunt and point, and I realized I had no answer for her. How did I foster independent play in my child? The answer was a mixture of classroom habits so second nature they did not register to my awareness and a good amount of dumb luck.

That day, I had no real help for my friend, other than encouraging my child to slowly lure hers away (and reheating her tea). Since then I have had another child who very much needed to gain that skill set. I also have a classroom of little friends who give me ample opportunity to hone my skills and test my theories.

Today, I have a few more ideas for those of us who very much would like to finish our hot beverage, take a deep breath and enjoy the knowledge that our children are able to search out, engage with and be enriched by their environment without our direct involvement.

A Yes Space

It all starts, for me, with security. Knowing they are in a safe space, set up for their success, allows me to “drop the rope,” as the saying goes, and invite them to take the lead. This requires a “Yes Space.”

A “Yes Space” is a room or area where anything your child can reasonably do is acceptable, safe and appropriate. A Yes Space for a mobile infant, for example, would be enclosed, baby-proofed and supplied with a variety of soft dolls, lightweight balls, a few simple blocks and plenty of things worthy of a good gnaw from tiny teeth. A parent would be close by, of course, to hear and see any signs of distress, but could quietly step away for a quick phone call, a dishwasher load or a snack.

As children grow, a Yes Space will shift. A toddler’s Yes Space is still enclosed, though possibly more spacious. There would be a new assortment of pretend play items, some vehicles and even some non-chokable loose parts (open-ended materials your child can use for all sorts of things).

A Yes Space grows with your child and, if you’re consistent, you’ll find it eases much of your stress as your child can enter into play in a safe space where they feel ownership. You can relax knowing the environment is doing the first level of guidance you would otherwise have to set down your coffee and provide.

A Word About Safety

If you’re unsure about what constitutes a choking hazard, consider a ping pong ball. Anything smaller than that can get lodged in a child’s throat. Assume all children younger than 3 are capable of mouthing and potentially choking on household items/toys and allow access to such things only with direct supervision.

A handy item I recommend all parents consider buying is a choke tester or choke tube. If an object fits inside, it is best not to leave it out for young children. This is especially important if your playroom or Yes Space will be used by multiple ages of children.

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Easing the Transition

Providing a space is not always enough for a child to successfully dive into independent play, especially if your child is temperamentally cautious or anxious by nature. This is where gradual guidance and support from a parent really help. Sitting on the floor with your children is a key way to make them feel supported and loved by you, so it’s a natural place to start.

As you play together, let the child lead. Take a passive role in play and observe them. In time, you may sense your child relaxing into their play and focusing less on your immediate presence. Slowly extricate yourself from play, either openly (“Mama’s going to go make some lunch”) or discretely.

The goal is not to bail on your child or dodge playtime forever. It is simply an exercise in normalizing your gradual distancing during quiet play time. It may take some time, but as everyone settles in to the “new normal,” this mundane level of separation will become less and less unusual and ideally will fulfill your child’s growing autonomy.

Make Time for Your Child

Finally, a pivotal part of encouraging independent play is to make time for quality, intentional time together. If your child knows that you will join them for a game, snuggles or a favorite pastime soon, it will likely be easier for them to accept a temporary disengagement.

As your child grows, their ability to understand this delayed gratification will increase. For younger toddlers, you may have to create a routine (setting aside a regular chunk of time after breakfast, for example) or play with them before trying to step away.

In the end, every child is an individual and will have their own individual needs as they grow into independent young people. While it may take time, patience and some trial and error to reach your goal, one day you will look up and find yourself alone with your thoughts, watching an engaged and focused child on a play journey all their own.

Alicia KobilnykAlicia is an Early Childhood Educator who works with young toddlers. She finds joy and inspiration to write in their cheeky shenanigans, as well as those of her two daughters.

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Categories: Babies & Toddlers, Features