Encouraging ‘independent play’ in toddlers

Toddlers love to play! It serves as a fun way for them to learn and explore about everything, and grow their understanding of the world around them.

For our young ones to feel connected to the world around them, providing them opportunities to practice self-care and self-help skills are essential. They form the building blocks for their growth and development and one of the best ways to encourage self-care in toddlers is through ‘independent play’.

What is ‘independent play’?

‘Independent play’ is a time where a child plays in a safe area by themselves or a certain time providing them the opportunity to be absorbed in their world of discovery.

Taking time to let children explore independently at an early age may take a while and will be difficult for some parents. This does not mean to ignore the young ones, but give them their own space to explore whilst watching from a comfortable distance. Parents are often left surprised at how capable toddlers are from a very early stage in their lives.

Why is ‘independent play’ important for toddlers?

Being able to play alone is a vital step for toddlers to gain independence whilst building on their imagination and problem-solving skills. Fostering solo play for toddlers will let them feel confident and self-reliant, and is a great alternative to being reliant on electronic devices to entertain kids.

There are many benefits to ‘independent play’ and here are some of them:

1. Fosters imagination and creative play

Children can become more creative and independent without the presence of adult direction. There are less rules and time spent to explain the play, and this is when they start developing positive problem-solving skills and cognitive development.

2. Promotes healthy growth through social stages

While having fun independently, children develop social independence. They become their own friend, which will help them feel safe and comfortable in any situation and encourage calmness through cultivation of self-soothing skills.

3. Provides an atmosphere without over-stimulation

With current technology and the hustle and bustle of life, children can be deprived of the opportunity to let their active minds rest. ‘Independent play’ activities can serve to be peaceful and meditative for children, allowing them to unwind for the day.

4. Sets the stage for future quiet time

Parents are often the go-to for every child’s needs and wants; ‘independent play’ teaches children about patience and resilience. Knowing how to play independently and wait until someone is available to help also gives parents the chance to catch a breather, and complete necessary tasks around the house.

How can we encourage our toddlers to play independently?

Encouraging toddlers to play on their own may seem daunting at the start but with a little patience and some general guidelines they will be off to occupy themselves in no time. Here are some ideas that might help you create the right environment for your child to solo play:

  • Set up the environment

As always, safety first! Create a space where they will be safe to be left alone so that you feel assured of their well being while they play. Have an open, uncluttered play space that is filled with natural light. Clear play spaces are calm, inspiring, and allow them to evoke endless imagination and creativity. 

Equipping the play area with open-ended toys is helpful. Give children age-appropriate toys allow them to take the lead during play and let them discover different ways to play based on their inclinations.

  • Follow their interests

No one knows their child better than their parents (or primary caregivers). Being familiar with the abilities and interests of your child enable you to provide materials and set up activities that toddlers will naturally gravitate towards. By listening to and observing your little one, patterns will start to surface. 

Even if your child is interested in just one thing, centering their play on things they love will keep them engaged longer. When children are motivated by interest, learning will naturally occur.

  • Trust your toddler

As adults, we often approach playtime for toddlers through the assumption that we know better. While this may be true at times, ‘independent play’ for toddlers should remain uninterrupted as much as possible. When toddlers are provided instructions or direction on how to play, they doubt their ability and eventually rely on adults to set up and develop games for them. Let your toddler make the decisions, and empower them with prompting open-ended questions.

With all that being said, we should always remember that every child is different and will learn to play independently at different times. Give it time, be patient with their progress and never forget to encourage all their little successes!

This article was contributed by Joan