Independent Play Tips for Toddlers

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Independent Play Tips for Toddlers

April 24, 2020


Our daily lives are looking pretty different right now as we all stay safe at home. For my family, it has been a rollercoaster of experiences. Sometimes it is wonderful to have so much time together! We are lucky to be healthy and safe, so we enjoy our time #PlayingAtHome as a family. And on the flip side, life gets chaotic and overwhelming with toddler twins in a city apartment and no yard. Pandemic or not, I only get this time with my adorable, loving, and hilarious 2 ½ year-old toddlers once. And since highs and lows seem to be an essential part of toddlerhood, I try to appreciate every small joy. 

One of my favorite small joys right now is independent play. Play is always a major focus in our house, even before we took the #pledgetoplay this year. At first, my toddlers needed continuous parent involvement to keep the play going. And guided play is an important part of children’s development! But independent play is crucial as well. It helps children develop independence, imagination, and executive functioning skills. It is a joy to watch them exploring and imagining all on their own! And it helps me do my least favorite chores (meal clean up, laundry, etc.) without interruption. Sometimes I even get a second to myself! We’ve been working with our twins to develop independent play skills for months, and as they’ve gotten older it has started to stick. I knew we reached a new level the day the independent play lasted so long that I asked to join the fun!

Every family and child is different, so everyone will have unique tactics that work best. Here is what has worked for us to build independent play skills: 


1. Parent Placement

The environment is crucial to reinforce play. My physical location can signal the difference between independent playtime and family playtime. Our boys are NOT ready for unsupervised play, so I am always nearby watching, usually in the kitchen. Since our living space is essentially one big room, I can be in the kitchen and only 6 feet away. The counter acts as a physical barrier so my kids understand I’m in kitchen mode, not play mode. Sometimes this means I drink my coffee and read the news while standing over our sink; suboptimal, but I’ll take it! You can establish a parent spot pretty much anywhere if you are consistent. A certain chair can show your kids when you are in supervisor mode, then you can plop down on the floor when ready to play.


2. Age Appropriate Toys 

I’ve noticed that when a toy is too hard to operate, my boys come to me more often. It is good to have challenges available, but some toys are too frustrating. I watch my boys operate toys so I can see if they are making progress or if they are far from mastering it. We have a fun hand-held toy car with great open/close doors, but the doors are difficult to close (even for me). No wonder my children come running to me in frustration when they try to play with it! Sometimes I want to chuck the thing across the room. I put away toys that are too difficult until I’m ready to jump into the play. I do the same for toys that become unsafe or too loud without close supervision. This way I’m not jumping in to redirect.


3. Limited Screen Time

Cutting back on screen time is probably not the easiest project to tackle right now. You can still plan for when things are back to (a new) normal. Screens are an easy way to keep kids entertained, and that can be helpful or necessary in the right dose. But I’ve found that right after watching a "movie" (my boys call everything a "movie", even their favorite 5 minute short) my kids are restless. All they want is another movie. When I say no, they want me to read or play with them. It takes a while to reset their focus. When my toddlers haven't watched a movie recently, they are more likely to walk over to their blocks and start building independently. It can hurt in the moment, but holding back on screen time creates more independent play down the road. 


My family's time #playingathome can be a great mix of independent and family play. Other times both kids meltdown at once, and I want to join in with my own tantrum. Hopefully, as we continue to stay safe at home, I can savor the cuddles and laughs. Someday, when I remember the spring of 2020, I may even smile.