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4 Strategies for Supporting Independent Play

Independent play feels like the parenting holy grail - a chance to drink hot coffee or have a moment to yourself while your child is happily immersed in play. Independent play is possible for your child, but most children need time and practice before they are ready to head off into their own world of play. Here are 4 strategies to help set the stage for independent play!

Strategy 1: Fill Their Cup

Have you ever noticed a trend in the time of day that your child plays the best? How about times when you really need them to play, but they are whining underfoot, and you just want to throw your hands up and shout ‘GO PLAY!’ Play is complex work for young children and in order for them to truly engage, they need to have their cups filled! Here are some ways to fill your child up to set the stage for engaged, independent play:

  • Attention cup: Give your child undivided attention (no cell phone, tv on, or doing busy work during this time) Just you and your child snuggling on the couch to read, doing a puzzle together, or playing quietly together.

  • Movement cup: Many young children need to move their bodies before they can settle down and play. I find a big dance party to a couple favorite songs, a walk where your child can explore, or a run around the backyard can fill that movement cup so that children can settle into deep play.

  • Basic needs cup: Can you focus on something important when you are hungry, tired, or have to use the bathroom? I know I can't! And neither can our children. If your child is struggling to play, ask yourself if it’s time for a snack or to close to nap time?

Strategy 2: Follow Their Lead

We’ve all seen the beautiful photos of perfect playrooms, with wooden toys and neutral colors galore. These images are so inspiring, but don't run off and buy all those fancy toys yet! When you are first working to increase your child’s attention for play, it is essential to think about their interests or things they like! Do they love dumping and filling baskets? Obsessed with the latest Disney movie or Paw Patrol? Can’t stop talking about garbage trucks? Think about how to set out toys that will build on this interest! For instance:

  • A basket of ball pit balls and an empty oatmeal container on a shelf for dumping and filling

  • A simple small world set up with favorite characters and a doll house

  • A basket with the latest vehicle obsession and a piece of flat cardboard with a road drawn on it

Then: add one new element to expand the play: such as a square cardboard box with a hole cut in the top for dropping balls, some plastic animals to go along with the princess characters, or a set of blocks next to the cardboard road. This takes a little bit of planning but the pay off is so worth it! When we are trying to build independent play, it’s essential to set our kids up for success - and that happens by using toys they are familiar with and love!

Strategy 3: Present But Not Available

Young children find comfort in their parent’s presence- so we can encourage their play by staying nearby, within view, but not full engaged. Try playing quietly with your child, then moving away to a chair with a book or magazine as they become engaged in their play. Another way to stay present is bringing favorite toys out of the playroom and into parts of the house you actually spend time. Put the play kitchen in a corner of the kitchen, or bring a basket of blocks and favorite animal toys into the living room. Your child will be more likely to play independently when they can see you!

Strategy 4: Realistic Expectations

No conversation about independent play is complete without a reminder to think realistically about what independent play will look like in action. Young children, particularly toddlers, tend to move from toy to toy quickly. Knowing typical attention spans for age ranges will make this process much less discouraging for everyone! Most child development experts agree that a typical child can focus for:

8 – 15 months: about a minute

16 – 24 months: 1 to 6 minutes 2 years old: 5 - 8 minutes 3 years old: up to 10 minutes 4 years old: 8 - 20 minutes

So if it seems like your child can't focus for long - it's because they can't! Many young children jump from toy to toy, focusing for a few minutes on this toy, building for a few minutes there, remembering a toy they left in another room. This short attention span doesn't meant that the quest for independent play is pointless. Instead, all the more reason for us caregivers to set our children up for success through filling their cup, following their interests and being present as they work on play skills!

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