Raising kids is exhausting! And so far, raising a toddler has been THE MOST exhausting (but I’ll get back to you on that in a couple years). They go from simply needing food, comfort, and sleep, to needing constant guidance, boundaries, consequences, affirmation, entertainment, and stimulation. It requires awareness, creativity, patience, thought, and deliberateness from the parent… ALL DAY LONG… and it’s exhausting, have I mentioned that? My daughter goes to bed at 7pm (I’ve worked very hard to make that happen). And from 7-10pm, all I can do is sit on the couch with a glass of wine in my hand and a puppy on my lap and mindlessly watch a dumb TV show. Chores do not get done. And I’m ok with that. 

I remember a conversation I had with a group of moms, where we complained to each other about how our toddlers won’t just play on their own for a little while. Some toddlers do, and their moms don’t know how lucky they are! My child WILL NOT play with something…. anything… unless I’m playing with (but really FOR) her. Unless she’s somewhere in the closet chewing on my new lipstick… then she’s suddenly very entertained. So I started thinking about this. What does it mean when a child needs to be constantly entertained? Is that a problem? Or is that just a personality thing? What can I do to encourage independent play? And what are the benefits of this (besides my sanity). Is independent play good for a child’s development? Character? 

I would like to argue that, yes, it is good for a child’s development. But not if it’s forced. And the degree to which each child plays independently will vary immensely. And that’s ok, they don’t need to be squeezed into a mold that some “expert” has created. Trying to force a child to be something he is not will frustrate both parent and child. So please let go of thoughts like “I want my child to be able to play for at least 30 minutes”. Each child is different and will end up where they need to end up, with your guidance. 
So what are the benefits of helping your child develop his or her ability to play independently? There are many! 

  1. A sense of self and safety  
  2. Self-confidence/self-efficacy 
  3. Imagination/creativity
  4. Critical thinking and problem solving skills 

Young toddlers are continually learning what it means to be a person. In psychology we call this “Theory of Mind”. They’re starting to understand that they are an individual, separate from other people. What they see and want might be different from what others see and want. Playing independently fosters this understanding. They, and only they, are causing something to happen in their environment. Playing independently can also help toddlers understand that it is ok to be alone. Someone who loves them is still nearby, and they don’t need to be joined at the hip in order to be safe. This is especially relevant for toddlers who struggle with separation anxiety. The realization that they are safe by themselves at home can translate to other environments, such as a church nursery. 

Self-confidence and self-efficacy come with experience, just like it does for grown-ups. When toddlers experience being successful at something, such as putting a puzzle together or opening a box, they gain self-confidence and are more likely to attempt seemingly difficult tasks in the future. When an adult is doing things FOR the toddler, or stepping in and taking over when its not going fast enough, they’re taking away the opportunity for the toddler to feel that sense of accomplishment. 
Imagination and creativity are so important for development, and a requirement for the last benefits: critical thinking and problem solving skills. It’s all tied together. When a toddler uses their imagination, they are creating scenarios where different rules and parameters apply. The constant exposure to different scenarios builds critical thinking and problem solving skills. These skills are important in every stage and all areas of our lives (as moms we use these skills all day long). 

Now if your toddler will not play independently, does that mean they won’t develop in these areas? No it does not! Each child has their own path and will get there at some time in some way. But your toddler could be ready and all she needs is a little nudge. Kids like and want to be challenged. So how do we do this? 

We’re actually going to apply the methods a child psychologist would use during a play therapy session. We’re going to let the child lead and give her as much independence as she feels comfortable with. 

  1. Pick a time of day when your toddler is usually in a good mood and you have 10-20 minutes to spare. For me this is in the afternoon right after I get my daughter up from her nap. I change her diaper and get her a drink, and we sit down in the living room (where all her toys are). Grab a pillow to sit on and leave your phone in another room! 
  2. You do NOTHING and say NOTHING unless prompted by your child. You simply sit there, watching and observing. Don’t say things that are based on assumptions or labels. For example, if your son is piling wooden blocks, you might be tempted to say “wow that’s a great tower!” But simply by saying that, you have influenced the direction of his play. Maybe it’s not a tower, maybe it’s a dinosaur! But now he feels that maybe it should’ve been a tower. Maybe it wasn’t meant to impress, or be “great” at all. 
  3. After a few days or weeks of doing this, experiment with creating more distance. Grab a chair and sit next to your child, or move over to the couch. If he won’t let you do this, that’s fine. He is still playing independently (or a little more independently than before). Maybe you’ll never get past this stage, but that’s ok! You can also start lengthening the time you spend in this activity. Maybe you’ll spend 10 minutes on the floor with your toddler, then spend 10 minutes on the couch nearby, and then grab a magazine to read. If he starts getting fussy and won’t let you do that, return to the floor, but again, don’t direct or interfere in any way. 

Eventually your toddler will learn that HE can decide what to play, how long to play it, and how the story unfolds. He is creative and capable, playing is interesting and rewarding, and mom (or dad) will always be there if he needs them (but he might be having so much fun that he won’t need you!) 

Does your toddler play independently? What are the strategies you’ve used to try to encourage it? I would love to hear what’s worked for other moms!