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7 Research-Backed Tips for Encouraging Independent Play

Research provides several strategies for teaching children to play on their own.

Key points

  • Independent play is an important skill for children to learn.
  • Parents can encourage the development of independent play by teaching their children play skills and building the parent-child relationship.
  • Parents can also help by setting up an environment that supports independent play skills.

Many parents of young children recognize the importance of independent play. It allows parents the chance to attend to necessary tasks (such as cleaning, making dinner, or caring for other children) while helping to advance children's emotional, social, cognitive and physical development. In particular, research suggests that children learn more from independent play than from the typical alternative of screen time. So how do you teach your child to play independently?

1. Engage in "special play time" with your child once per day if possible.

It may seem counterintuitive, but in order to get children to play independently, you first need to play with them to teach them important play skills and provide them with the attention that they are craving from you. Accordingly, parents should engage in "special play time" regularly with their children. During this "special play time," it is imperative that your child lead the play while you are only describing what you see. Avoid all demands, teaching, questions, or criticism during this time.

"Special play time" should be a one-on-one interaction without any distractions such as phones, background television, or siblings. Having "special play time" as a part of your daily routine will also help children to understand when you are available to play with them and when you are not. A randomized controlled trial of a parenting program found that, when parents are taught this type of child-led play, their children show more frequent independent play.

2. Be a responsive, sensitive, and empathetic parent.

Be responsive and sensitive to your child's needs. Consistently show your child empathy and love. Set up predictable routines, particularly around bedtime or any separation. These strategies will help you to develop a “secure attachment” with your child. Research suggests that children who are “securely attached” may be more likely to play independently, as they show longer attention spans in play and are able to engage in unstructured play for longer periods of time.

3. Create realistic goals for independent play with your child.

Create a realistic goal for how long your child will engage in independent play with your child. Set a timer with this goal, explaining to your child how the timer works, as well as exactly what is expected of them and what you will be doing during this time period. For some children, the initial goal may be one minute. Parents can then gradually increase the time as the child matures and gains independent play skills. Be patient as children's ability to play independently increases as they get older.

4. Reward your child with attention and praise when they achieve their goals for independent play.

After your child has successfully met their goal for independent play, reward them with your attention. Research finds that parental attention is a powerful motivator for behavior. When you pay attention to your child’s behavior, you make that specific behavior more likely to occur in the future. On a typical day, a busy parent is likely to disengage and pay less attention when their child is playing independently and use that opportunity to attend to work or chores. The parent is then likely to quickly return their attention to the child when they stop playing independently and engage in negative behavior (whining, fighting, aggression, etc.). However, this pattern will only decrease the likelihood that your child will play independently and increase the likelihood that they will engage in negative behavior in the future. Instead, by paying attention to your child meeting their goals for independent play, it may help to increase its frequency. During this time, you will also want to ignore any minor negative behavior that you do not want to see more of, such as whining that they are “bored” or asking you to play with them after you clearly explained the independent play period.

When your child achieves their goal for independent play, you can also reward them with verbal praise and nonverbal reinforcement, such as a high-five. Research finds that praise and nonverbal reinforcement encourage children to persist in a difficult task.

5. Give children specific instructions for independent play if necessary.

Research finds that giving children specific instructions may help to improve their ability to play independently. For example, ask your child to complete two puzzles while you empty the dishwasher. Gradually, ask them to complete more time-consuming or complicated tasks.

6. Do not interrupt your child’s play or distract them when they are focused on independent play.

Research indicates that interruptions (such as showing the child a different toy) have a negative impact on children’s attention on a play task.

7. Use special toys or books that are only provided for independent play time.

It may also be helpful to try to identify which toys are most engaging for your child during independent play and save these toys for independent play time. The particular toys may be different for every child, but research finds that children tend to engage with musical instrument toys or books to a greater extent independently than other types of toys.

In summary, independent play is an important skill for children to learn and parents may be able to encourage the development of this skill by setting up the child's environment to foster independent play. However, as with the development of any skill, parents need to be patient and understand that every child learns this skill at their own rate.


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