5 ways to help encourage independent play in little ones

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We all know the importance of finding time to connect with your toddler but it’s easy for our busy lives to get in the way. Sometimes we need to work from home, get things done without distractions – or just need a little peace and quiet. And this is okay. Actually, our toddlers learning to entertain and keep themselves occupied is an important skill they need to learn. 

We call this skill – independent play, which is simply your little one’s ability to play without your help, or instruction. Independent play is great as it fosters imagination, creativity, persistence, patience and problem-solving skills in children… which leaves us asking, how can we encourage independent play? 

To help you and your little one master this important skill, we’ve partnered with LEGO® DUPLO®  to share our top five tips for encouraging independent play.

Give them open-ended toys

Often when we know we have an important task to do, or we just want 10 minutes of quiet time, we can be tempted to set them up with a really engaging toy, like ones that light up, make music and stimulate all the senses. 

Or, we may set them down with an Ipad or in front of the TV (no shame here – sometimes screen time is key!) just to ensure they will be distracted. But actually, when we want to be developing their independent play skills, we want to sit them down with some open-ended toys. 

Open-ended toys are anything that puts their imagination and creativity front and centre. They are great because they allow children to put their imagination to use in play that has no rules or bounds. They can also be used to process events and tell stories or give them the freedom to explore any idea that pops into their head. 

We love the LEGO DUPLO Alphabet Truck as it provides a small amount of direction to kickstart their creativity, but is packed full of learning opportunities for open-ended play. The set is anchored in colours and letters to help develop cognitive skills such as language and problem-solving. The Alphabet Truck also encourages their roleplaying skills and fine motor skills through play – whether it be driving the truck through town, or building a city tower. Not to mention, it’s a whole lot of fun!

LEGO DUPLO Alphabet Truck

2. Make it a part of their daily routine

Our little ones thrive on routine – so think about independent play for them, like getting back into the gym or running is for us… It’s much harder if you haven’t done it in a while! The more opportunities they have for independent play, the better they will get at it as they begin to develop what they find fun and how they like to play. 

So, scheduling independent play into the daily routine is a good way to ensure they are being given the time they need. Especially since we know just how important it is for their development – plus it’s giving us those few extra minutes a day we all need as parents. 

3. Fill their cup first

As a parent, there is nothing worse than trying to write back to an email or even have fun with the family when your cup is completely empty… and this is true for our little ones too! 

They can often feel overwhelmed or incapable of independent play if they aren’t feeling supported, comfortable and happy. So before encouraging them to play independently, it can be a good idea to have some special bonding time with them first. Whether that is some cuddles on the couch, playing together for a bit or even giving them some encouragement beforehand. 

When they feel supported, they are also more likely to feel ready to try new things and get lost in their own imaginations. So, if they have had a bad night’s sleep, are in a cranky mood or have just gotten home from a big day at preschool – it could be a good idea to give independent play a miss for a day, or not to push it too hard. 

LEGO DUPLO Alphabet Truck

4. Expect (and accept) interruptions

While we may envision independent play as being 30 perfect minutes of our child playing by themselves… The reality is that they will probably still want and need your attention during this time. So expect and accept that interruptions are normal. 

An 18-month-old will probably only be able to play by themselves for 5-8 minutes at a time. This should increase as they grow and get better at it, but some three-year-olds may still only be able to handle 10-15 minutes. All children are different and will develop this skill at a different pace and to differing degrees.

So, when they want your attention, know that this is normal and make sure to praise their progress. You may find that if you stay in the same room as your toddler that they are actually able to independently play for longer. This is because just knowing that you are there, comforts them and makes them feel supported in their play. 

5. Flexibility is key

Some days independent play is just going to be a no-go. Whether they slept poorly during their nap, they’ve been at preschool all day or are just in a bad mood – sometimes independent play is just off the table. So taking a flexible approach to independent play is key and keeping an open mind. You’ll quickly learn you can’t force it.

As mentioned previously, scheduling in independent play is a great idea, but it doesn’t have to look the same every day or be at the same time. Many parents find bathtime is a great opportunity to encourage independent play. Even as you wash their hair, you may find them picking up their bath toys and playing independently. Or time in the car is also great for independent play – as they can play with their favourite toy or look out the window in the backseat.

What is important is recognising they are getting the time and space for independent playtime. When they wrap up playtime and are wanting your attention – praise them and acknowledge that they were doing a great job playing by themselves. 

Independent play is a great skill our little ones learn as they grow up. By learning to keep themselves entertained, they are also learning how to imagine and think critically by themselves – which are important skills that will serve them well all throughout their childhood and right into adulthood. 

This is a paid partnership between Kiindred and LEGO® DUPLO® 
LEGO, LEGO® DUPLO® and the Minifigure are trademarks of The LEGO Group. ©2022 The LEGO Group.

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