3 Ways to Encourage Toddler Independent Play

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3 Ways to Encourage Toddler Independent Play

October 11, 2019

"Change is the only constant in life.” This long held belief (originally from Heraclitus in ancient Greece) is especially true with very young children. As a parent, I’ve had to constantly change and adapt to keep up with my two little ones. One of my hardest new parent transitions was adjusting to how much my children needed me. Once our twins arrived, it seemed I never got a moment for myself unless they were asleep! Feeding, diapers, tummy time… the list never ends. I’ve adjusted to this, and sometime it is nice to be so needed.

But now that my boys are toddlers, it is time to change again! It is time to give my children room to begin developing independence. They need space to develop critical skills and to explore their own interests. If I’m constantly in their face with a new game or toy, they will never learn how to entertain and challenge themselves. This can feel odd—almost wrong—since I’m used to constantly interacting with them. I need to keep reminding myself that it is GOOD to give them some space. As the American Academy of Pediatrics counsels: “Self-directed play, or free play, is crucial to children’s exploration of the world and understanding of their preferences and interests.” I am trying to embrace this priority; hopefully soon I can turn off my mom guilt and enjoy the little bits of time I get back.

Moving to independent play is not an automatic shift for my toddlers. I need to reinforce free play, otherwise my boys just cluster on my lap. Here are three things that have worked for me.

  1. Stand Firm

My children will always try to draw me into their play. Sometimes this means I need to sit nearby and then gradually phase myself out of the play. Other times I kindly and calmly refuse to play. I explain that I will be doing something else, and I give them options for playing on their own. They usually DO NOT like this, but sometimes they are able to overcome their frustration and go play. I’m hoping those times become more and more frequent!

  1. Think about their environment

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that “Adults who facilitate a child’s play without being intrusive can encourage the child’s independent exploration and learning.” One major way I facilitate play—without intruding—is by creating the right setting. I set up an interesting scene with their toys to encourage independent play. I’ll put books about trucks and toy trucks on their kid-height table. They love to look through the books to find the matching toy vehicle. I noticed that too many toys leads to meltdowns. I clean up most toys and only leave a few available. They can always grab more, but the initial organization helps them focus. I also rotate the toys frequently in and out of off-limits storage. “New” play food in the same old play kitchen will inspire a full 20 minuets of solo play!

  1. Be Patient

Another constant with self-directed play has been inconsistency! For my kids, it is not a clear growth path. Some days are better than others. With twins, they don’t always sync up either. Sometimes I’ll need to take one along to “help” me prep food while the other plays solo. I try to be patient with the inconsistent progress; they are still very much toddlers after all!


We’ve just started to work on independent play in our house, so I am sure I will learn a lot more as we go. What has worked for your family? Did your approaches change as kids get older?