These parent-tested tips will help kids play by themselves

When school’s not in session, it can feel like the kids are underfoot all the time. While we all love spending time with our children, parents also need quiet time alone, whether for self-care or just to get things done. Yet young children are wired to crave regular social interaction. No wonder most parents find it hard to get their little ones to play independently when asked.

If you suddenly realize your child is being suspiciously quiet, it’s a good idea to check in and make sure they’re not giving themselves zebra stripes with Sharpie markers, painting their toenails on your carpet, or sneaking extra tablet time. Yet while it’s true that a sudden burst of quiet, independent play can be sparked by mischievous (often messy!) fun, it is possible for young kids to learn how to happily play alone in more constructive ways too.

Our readers on Facebook shared these excellent parent-tested tips to help young children spend more time in independent play:

Create a “yes” space

I have three kids and I’ve found the key to letting them play independently is to create a ‘yes’ area. Create a room or a floor where the children can roam and play without many restrictions. Having toys in different areas is helpful: some in the bedroom and different ones in the living room for example. I rotate toys as well, bringing out the old ones again as though they are new.”

-Amber Roloff

Start by introducing a regular (screen-free) “quiet time” 

I find daily quiet time is a great time for them to learn independent play. As my kids have transitioned out of naps, they have quiet time in their room. My 8- and 5-year-old still have quiet time most days and will play with Lego, read, draw, or do puzzles independently. It takes some time and consistency for them to get used to it. I made some quiet time boxes in the beginning for them to play with only during that time.”

-Shannon Foo

Set up a timed activity challenge

Give them an idea, for example to build the town they live in, and ‘time’ them for 15 to 20 minutes. Create a den with secret passages (one that mummy or daddy can get through/in is always a challenge!) or create an obstacle course. Basically, give an idea and actually look at the end result, with positive feedback only.”

-Georgie Rumming

Give them permission to destroy something

I froze some toys into an ice block and had them demolish it. Best independent play so far.”

-Anna Cole


Related read: A printable outline to help kids plan their own day


More expert tips to get kids to play alone

In an article for Working Mother magazine, author and parenting coach Faith Collins offers these helpful tips to encourage independent play:

  • Offer fewer choices. Collins suggests taking away as many as 70 percent of the toys in view so that kids aren’t overwhelmed by choice, and to provide space to arrange the toys that remain in ways that invite play.
  • Turn off screens and give kids a chore to do (then let them wander off and play when they get bored).
  • If your kids don’t want to go outside to play, take your activities outside when you can so that they can play near you. Collins suggests bringing a basket of laundry to fold outside, or bringing a book or knitting project to do while kids play. When the weather allows, I sometimes take my laptop outside to work in the backyard while the kids play, or I’ll knit or play guitar outside when I need to do something for myself and can’t get time alone.
  • When siblings fight or the kids get disruptive, take a short break from your task and eat a snack together, cuddle or tickle them, offer to read a short story—anything that provides a constructive way to connect with them and give them your attention.
  • When you can, invite your kids to help with housework, or to play next to you while you work. Let the kids stay close if they feel they need to connect, and they will find their own fun when they are ready to be on their own again, Collins says.

“When we allow children to come in and out of our tasks, and we are willing to put them aside when children need us, they’re able to go for longer and longer periods before checking in, and they can play nicely on their own,” Collins writes.

One tip that I’ve found helpful is to make a special point of noticing when children are behaving well. It doesn’t take much: give extra smiles throughout the day, make positive comments like “I love to watch you run,” ask your child to show you the fort they made, or stop work for a few minutes to toss a sock ball around or watch them practice their cartwheels.

In an article on the University of Michigan’s health blog, psychologist Dr. Blake Lancaster explains why these simple gestures of positive reinforcement are so powerful:

Children crave the attention of their parents or caregivers. They prefer this attention to most anything. They like it more than any candy, toys, video games, videos and screens.

In the end, children want nothing more in this world than to bask in the light of their parents’ one-on-one attention. If we can fill their ‘attention tanks’ in response to good behavior, they’ll be less likely to seek attention by acting out.”

-Dr. Blake Lancaster

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