Encouraging Solo Play For Your Little One

A toddler in a pink hat, sweater, and pants plays with wooden spools, rings, bowls, and balls in a tan basket.

Is your baby already overscheduled?

In your bustling world of parenting, it's easy to over prioritize how we think our young one should be spending their time. Music classes, playgroups, screen time, socialization at daycare, spending time with other caregivers who engage your child constantly, reading time… while all of these are important parts of a child’s growth, we often overlook the importance of independent play in their development. While our presence is undoubtedly crucial in their early years, making time and space in their schedules for solo play holds immense benefits that extend far beyond mere entertainment.

Downtime Isn’t Wasted Time: Cognitive Advantages of Independent Play

Independent play is not simply a break from adult supervision; it's a transformative experience that nurtures a child's cognitive development. During these self-directed moments, children have the freedom to explore, experiment, and problem-solve without external guidance or intervention. This hands-on approach fosters creativity, imagination, and critical thinking skills, laying a strong foundation for skills they’ll use throughout their lives.

The renowned Montessori education philosophy wholeheartedly embraces the significance of independent play. Maria Montessori, the pioneer of this approach, believed that children are naturally curious and driven to learn, and that unstructured play provides the ideal environment for them to discover and expand their knowledge.

Why Children Need to Learn to Play Alone

Independent play is not just about learning; it's also about developing essential life skills. In the absence of constant adult intervention, children learn to self-regulate, make choices, and manage their emotions. They also develop a sense of independence and self-confidence, knowing they can entertain themselves and engage in meaningful activities without constant adult support.

Children often need to play independently for various reasons. Consider a parent working from home who needs uninterrupted time to focus on their tasks. Or, imagine a parent tackling household chores without a child underfoot. In these instances, encouraging independent play allows parents to accomplish their responsibilities without compromising their child's learning and development.

In addition to the cognitive and developmental benefits, there are also practical ones too. Parents and caregivers may need to tackle household chores without a child underfoot, finish work tasks, or engage in independent play themselves – perhaps by modeling independent play behavior in the form of a craft or book.

How to Encourage Independent Play

Ensuring a safe and stimulating environment is crucial for successful independent play. It’s important to designate a space for independent play, free from clutter and distractions.

  1. Start by decluttering and sorting your child’s toys, so they can easily access the toys they want to play with themselves (the key here is that they won’t need to ask you to get a toy for them). Remove toys that are very distracting, like those that light up or make noise.
  2. As you’re organizing, choose age-appropriate toys to leave in your play space that match your child's developmental stage and interests. 
  3. Offer toys that allow for creativity and imagination, such as blocks, dolls, and dress-up clothes. Even household items, like food storage containers and paper towel rolls can become an instrument of creative expression.
  4. Have realistic expectations and start by playing together. A small child will likely be overwhelmed by all the choices in their play room. Instead, give choices and allow your child to choose their activity.
  5. Don’t comment on your child’s play, but do praise after they’re done. “Wow, did you have fun? Tell me about what you built!” Allow your child to be fully engaged in their task without interruptions.
  6. Allow your child to get bored. Boredom leads to creativity. If your child shifts activities, appears board, or doesn’t immediately choose what to do next, avoid chiming in with your suggestions. While well meaning, you’re disrupting problem solving and imagination. If they come to you looking for guidance, offer a choice.
  7. Make independent play part of their day. Integrate it into your child’s schedule and the more they do it, the more confident they will become, and the more skills they will develop.

Independent Play Time By Age and Activity

Independent play can and should be tailored to the appropriate age group of your child. Children as young as two can play independently, depending on their attention span. Of course, each child has different needs, interests, and abilities, and may not fit strictly into these guidelines. Don’t worry! Find what works for your child and encourage them to play independently.

Two-year-olds can concentrate for 5-6 minutes: Independent play for toddlers involves simple toys like blocks, stuffed animals, and colorful containers provide endless opportunities for exploration and creativity. Push and pull toys encourage movement, and stacking cups and rings encourage problem solving.

Three-year-olds can concentrate for up to 8 minutes: Dress-up clothes, puzzles, and imaginative play sets spark imagination and role-playing, encouraging social and emotional development. Children in this age group may also enjoy art materials, like play dough, crayons, and finger paints. Try introducing problem-solving puzzles and sorters, active play toys, and simple books.

Four-year-olds can concentrate for 8-12 minutes: Preschool children can enjoy time coloring, doing simple crafts or puzzles, playing with or decorating cardboard boxes, looking at books, sorting coins, and more.

Five-year-olds can concentrate for up to 18 minutes: Older children may be able to work on phonics or math worksheets, engage in pretend play, begin to read independently, and practice handwriting.

A child in brown pants and a white shirt sits on a white wood floor surrounded by tan wooden blocks. The child is playing with wooden rings and a stacking pull toy.

Keeping an Eye on Your Child While They Play

While encouraging independent play, parents and caregivers should still maintain a watchful eye without hovering or interrupting their child's concentration. You can balance supervision and autonomy by setting clear boundaries and expectations. 

  • Verbalize the activity: Let your child know that you're available if they need you, but that they should focus on their play for a specific period of time.
  • Position yourself nearby: Stay within sight of your child, but not so close that you interfere with their play.
  • Provide reassurance when needed: Occasionally check in with your child to offer verbal support and encouragement.
  • Recognize and celebrate progress: Praise your child's independent play efforts and accomplishments.

Get Help With Independent Play Time

Independent play is not lost time; it's a vital developmental skill that empowers children to become self-directed, creative, and confident. By nurturing their independent play skills, you’re laying the foundation for a lifetime of learning, growth, and resilience.

Want more guidance on setting your child up for independent play? Use Happy Little People Co. activity cards for ideas, which offer ideas on how to introduce new concepts, skills, and challenges to your baby to five-year-old with or without a playmate.

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