3 Powerful Steps to Encourage Independent Child’s Play

Transform a whiny, clingy, toddler into an Independent Investigator!

Child playing with figure and a boat. Imaginative play is a learned skill. You need to teach how to play by imagining a storyline for your characters.
Photo by Soraya Irving on Unsplash

Do you have a toddler that continually seeks your attention by calling mommy many times a day? Or always needs you within sight? Most likely, your child does not have the skills to engage in independent child’s play. Believe it or not, you can change this situation around, but it will take your patience and understanding.

“One of your most important tasks as a parent is to raise independent, resilient children who can venture into the world and solve their own problems. With some forethought and planning, you can help nurture your child’s growing independence!” explains a spokesperson from MSU (Michigan State University).

Deep down, you know that your child will be better off learning to be independent. You may have indulged your child by meeting their every need. And that approach was appropriate in infancy. However, as they grow older, they need to be nudged into enjoying the aspects of independent play. Your behavior needs to change so that they can develop. Independent play is a learned skill, and with some nurturing, it will become satisfying to your child.

Now is the time to help them learn how to do things independently. Take a look at these guidelines and steps for achieving that goal. By helping your child adjust to more alone time child’s play, you will be setting them on the path to success in life.


Once you have committed to helping your child, you need to set up the physical environment as well as the routines for independent child’s play.

Safety: You will need a room or an area in which your child can play safely without having your direct eyes on him or her. All of the electrical outlets require a covering. There should be no possibility of your child falling from a great height, such as down a staircase.
Securing the area: Since it is unlikely you will want to close a door, you will need a substantial gate instead so that your child has a visual separation point from you.

Routine: Kids like to know what will happen in their day. A set routine is very comforting to them. This routine may not run by a strict time. Still, the order of the daily events will remain the same from getting up and having breakfast to nap times, crafts, lunch, play with toys, quiet time, together time, outdoor or physical activity, and independent playtimes. Often parents will post the routine in a convenient place so your child can see what is coming next. You can use a combination of pictures and words to make up the schedule.

Placing “Alone Time” in your Day: First of all, give the time a name. Whatever you call this time, use it consistently. Some suggestions are quiet time, room time, solo play, your alone playtime, alone time. When you set the schedule up, you could call this time “Playtime” and then adjust it to “Alone Playtime” or Solo Play Time.”

Good times for independent play is after eating, nap time, or extended physical activity. These are points in the day when it is likely that your child is ready to settle down to focus on an activity.

Together Times: It is also advisable to schedule in “together times.” Your child needs the reassurance that he or she will have your attention. During the “together times,” you will devote your undivided attention to your child or children. Perhaps you will engage in a favorite activity, share a book or cook with your child. But it will be helpful for your child to know that there will be “together times” every day.

You may even have your child choose between two prescribed activities. You could say, “For our together times today, would you like to read a book or play a game?” With younger children, it is usually better to have them choose between 2 activities instead of asking an open-ended question such as “What would you like to do?” If your day usually does not have a routine, you may need to take a couple of weeks to establish a routine before attempting “alone time.”

Teaching Alone Time Play: You need to teach your son or daughter how to play using open-ended toys. You can use these toys for many different scenarios: blocks, animals, people, structures, and vehicles. These type of toys are ones that lead to imaginary play
Start by playing with your child by showing them how to make up a story or situation, You can take the people they have on a grocery store trip, or a visit to the farm, or a visit to a friend’s home.
While your child is playing, you disappear into the background by allowing them to take a more active role. If your child asks you to play, interact on a minimal level.


The Room: Your child will be in a room separate from you but within hearing range. They will have several engaging activities available for them to amuse themselves. Or if they are in the toy room, they will have many toy choices. Several toys will be staged by you, ready for play.
At first, there will be a physical barrier between you, but with practice, you can remove it.

Over time you may be able to have “alone time” in the same area if your child has learned to regulate themselves so that they focus on their activity for the time period.

What type of Toys: Try to select activities that are not messy ones. Do not offer painting, water play, or playdough, or you may have a big mess to tidy up afterward. Select toys that engage your child.
Select the toys that you know will entice your toddler. Always set up several activities so that your toddler can move from one activity to another, if they get tired of playing with one set of toys. For example, you could set up the mock grocery store, some blocks with people figures, and a puzzle. Have 4 to 8 selections.

It is helpful to rotate the toys. Toy rotation consists of hiding some toys for a short time period, such as a week, and then exchanging the toys. You have half the toys available and have half-hidden for the next rotation. That keeps things fresh with your kids.

Timer: You may need to set a timer so that you know you are extending the time gradually.


When you start “alone time,” you can do it gradually, or you can set it up and stick with it.

The Gradual Approach: At first, it will not be obvious to your child that there is a difference during this time. You will set up an enticing toy in the room ahead of time. Enter the room and close the gate behind you. Start an activity. For example, begin a puzzle, start to build a structure, or set up the toy garage with a few cars. Take your child into the room and begin to engage in the activity. Slowly withdraw from the play, with the hope that they will start playing without your intervention. In a couple of days of this routine, leave the room for a few minutes. Inform your child that you will be right back as you leave And then LEAVE. But come back within a few minutes. Over the next several days or weeks, continue in this pattern but extend the time you are away. Hopefully, soon you can stand at the entrance of the room and then disappear once your child is playing happily.

The Direct Approach: Explain to your child that you are going to start a new way to play. Give it a name such as Solo Time. Build up the concept of Solo Play as what big boys and girls do. Continue explaining that there will be a surprise in the room for them and that you will be close by while they enjoy this surprise. Further, make the point that they will stay in the room for a short time, and you will return.
Then later on in the day, ask if they are ready for their surprise? When they agree, take them to the Solo Play area and watch while they enter. Close the gate and move out of sight. Do not go back if they cry. You can reassure them by saying I am just around the corner. Or you can say that you will help them when Solo Time is over. Try the separation in short spurts at first to reassure your child you are still near them. You will lengthen the time every day from now on.

If your child did successfully play alone without getting upset, praise them.
Say something like this. “Mommy is very proud of you for playing by yourself.” If they were not successful, chalk it up to a learning experience. But be consistent with going into the room every day as is in your routine. You may need to introduce some new toys to entice your child into the play.
You also could say, “Good job on lining up all of your toys on the shelf. Now it is easy to see where every toy is so that next time you play, you can find it.” Or “Well done, you started tidying up when you heard the timer, just as we planned.”

Keys to Success: The key to success is consistency. Try the “alone play” every day. Build up the time little by little. Praise your child with specific details such as “you built a very big building all by yourself.” Avoid saying, “Good job,” without any specifics in your praise. You want your child to understand what part of the activity was well done. And if things don’t go well, do not get angry, just move on to the next part of your day together.

Learn how to work with your child from this YouTube video.

In a child's bedroom there are some animals set up for playtime. For beginning independent child's play you need to set up the scene for your kids.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

You can do this!

It most likely will not be easy for the first few times, but be confident that you are helping your child learn a very valuable life skill.

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