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How to teach your toddler to play independently1How to Teach Your Toddler to Play Independently

There are quite a few things that I didn’t realize, before motherhood, that I would have to teach my children. I knew they had to be taught how to ride a bike and how to tie their shoes, it didn’t occur to me that bottom wiping, nose blowing, eating with utensils, and playing independently are learned behaviors.

Goods news! I’ve had some experience with these things now, and today I’m going to share my top tips for encouraging your toddler to play independently.

The first set of tips and tricks are ideal for younger toddlers (ages 1 – 2.5ish).


Start small. If you start small with your expectations of how long you expect him to play independently, you will both be able to celebrate when he is successful. Keep in mind that depending on how old your little one is, their natural limit of solo play can be as small as fifteen minutes, and you’ll have to work up to that!

For younger toddlers, focus on one or two toys at a time for independent play time. A set of stacking cups, a few blocks, or a stack of magna tiles are great options!

You can also consider non-toy entertainment to keep your babe busy. An old keyboard, some rinsed out plastic jars and bottles I saved in a bin, and a drawer of K-Cups (I know, it’s weird, but it worked) have been the clear winners for my kiddos!)

When you’re ready to have independent play time, sit with him and model playing independently yourself, and when he is totally engaged, take a few steps away and a deep breath. If he comes over to engage you again, simply get him started with the same toys again and repeat.

Stay close. When your little one is first learning to entertain himself, it’s best if you say in the same space. Don’t stay right beside him, but while he is learning that it’s fun to work on his own it’s ideal if you’re close enough for him to lay eyes on. Use the time to thumb through a magazine or read a few pages of a book to yourself. When he checks to see if you’re there, he will also see that you’re busy and keep doing what he’s doing.

Find a routine. When your tot knows the order of your day and what to expect, it can make the weeks flow so much more smoothly. A part of your routine can (and should!) be independent play. Initially, consider having independent play time be right after a snack or a meal when your little one is feeling content and not sleepy or hungry.

The tips above are for the younger toddler set specifically. For my older toddlers / preschoolers (2.5+) I have a few additional ideas.

Try timers. For the older bunch, timers have been our friend. Not only does setting a timer keep it from feeling like a road trip (“Are we done yet? No.”) it keeps me from being the bad guy who always says no. It is important though that you keep appropriate limits on using the timer. Starting small still applies!

Background noise. Another thing that has helped my older toddlers find success and joy in playing alone is to have soft kids music playing while they play. Something about the added sensory input really seems to distract them from wanting to walk away in the first five minutes. When they get engaged, they are happy to play on their own.

Rotate toys. The more toys my kids have out an available to them, the less likely they are to play happily on their own. They get overwhelmed easily and get so stuck on rifling through each and every item that they don’t get in the groove of playing! I try and rotate the toy stock every few months, placing the toys that are on an off shift in a big plastic tub in my basement. I generally change them out when my kids aren’t around, so they are greeted by all ‘new’ stuff the next time they go into the playroom.

When you’re questioning if the work and stress of teaching and encouraging your toddler to play on his own, consider the benefits that come from it. Not only is independent play convenient for you, it’s developmentally appropriate and important! When kids play on their own it encourages verbal skills, imagination, independence, and confidence. A phrase that I remind myself of often applies here: “Play is the work of childhood.” You are doing your kids a service to give them the gift of being able to enjoy playing on their own.

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