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How To: Encourage Independent Toddler Play

February 08, 2022 4 min read

How To: Encourage Independent Toddler Play

If you follow me on Instagram, there’s almost a 100% chance you have been exposed to at least one of my story posts showcasing my daughter, Oakley, playing independently. She just turned 18 months old yesterday and has been spending a portion of the day playing by herself for at least the last 6-7 months, at least. I am asked virtually every single day how we accomplished this. At first, I really didn’t have any idea. It just sort of happened. And after a few hours of research, the skills I was teaching her, without knowing it, are the exact recipe to fostering independence in a young child. Here are my top tips that can be implemented at any time!

I also would like to emphasize that children need to play on their own. It is how confidence is built, it’s how independence is learned, it fosters imagination- all while allowing you to get some work done, get caught up on emails or texts, do the dishes, or even- just TAKE A BREAK.

Top Tips

  1. The child needs to have a relationship with the parent that they know they can depend on. Think about it, if you KNOW you can depend on your spouse or friend, you don’t constantly need to be checking in with them, talking to them, etc. The same is true for your child. If your child knows they always have you there when needed, they will learn that their independence is also a safe space. If you are wanting to learn more about this dependent relationship, I highly suggest reading: The Conscious Parent
  2. Once you have established a dependent relationship with the child, it’s time to get an area or room set up for independent play. For us, we have a large play pen in the living room that has only Oakley-safe items in it. It’s an area that she has had for herself since she was about 10 months old. It allows me to know she is safe in there and always within eye sight if I am in the kitchen, living room, etc in our home. It also allows her to be able to see me which builds her confidence in the independence. If I just left her, I am not sure if she would be happy for a minute or 20, but I know she wouldn’t have the same level of confidence in herself by not seeing me or knowing where I was.
  3. Now that we have the relationship and the safe space, it’s time to start the independent play. For us, I usually utilize this aspect of our day while I am making breakfast or while on my treadmill desk. I then will use it again in the afternoon while doing dishes or catching up on emails. Start off by playing with your child in their safe space and then once they start playing on their own, tell them what you are going to be doing. Tell them you will be right in the kitchen (or wherever) and tell them you will always be there if you need them. Even if they are younger and you don’t think they can understand you, they can understand reassurance. I usually play with Oakley for about 10 minutes before getting out of the play pen and doing my own tasks. It’s very important to not interrupt them. If I do, she will always decide “that’s enough time on my own”. This also isn’t a “cry it out” type of thing. If you walk away and your child starts screaming bloody murder, give it 2-3 minutes and see if they calm down and start playing on their own. Sometimes the shift from you being there to not can cause a little hiccup but then they realize they can keep playing on their own, especially if their favorite toys are in their safe space.
  4. Start with small increments each session and work your way up from there. The first time you do this, it may only be 5-10 minutes of independence. But even that is enough time for parents to get a nice reset. Try again later in the day and see what happens! Also, make this apart of their daily routine, children thrive with routine and if you can bake this in to their daily schedule, it will really benefit the both of you.
  5. I also think it’s vital to provide opportunities for toddlers, especially, to be independent. Oakley loves throwing her own diapers away, helping me do laundry, getting her own shoes when it’s time to leave, opening the door to go to the car, etc. Just some things to think about as you go about your day to day activities!

 

I truly hope these tips helped! Please let me know in the comments below if they do1