Helping your toddler to play independently doesn’t only offer you some much-needed downtime but it has really positive outcomes for your child too.
As parents we feel like it’s down to us to lead our kids in play as much as possible, after all if we’re not actively parenting then it feels like we’re not parenting, right?
But actually independent play has a myriad of benefits for your child, and for you.
Your child’s exploration of independent play actually begins earlier than you think. As a baby there will have been times they laid in their cot gabbling to themselves or kicked about on a play mat trying to grab onto their own toes.
Your child is never too young to get started with independent play, but from around 14 months when your toddler is on their feet and learning more words is a great age to really encourage them in this.
This post contains affiliate links. This means I may make a small commission from any purchases made via the links but it does not cost you any more.
Why is independent play good for toddlers
Independent play is good for your toddler because it helps them learn to solve problems on their own, develops their confidence and allows them to explore the power of their own imagination.
It also teaches children to have fun independently, according to Very Well Family.
While leaving a child to be bored feels like bad parenting, actually that’s not what independent play is all about.
Leaving them to play alone encourages your child to think of other ways to play with their toys – ways that you probably have never even thought of yourself!
It gets them thinking for themselves, rather than relying on you to make all of the decisions about what they do with their day for them.
Plus let’s not forget that a child that knows how to entertain themselves for a while is good for you because you may need 30 minutes to yourself every now and then.
Tips for toddler independent play
If you want to encourage independent play in your toddler the first thing to do is remind yourself to take a backseat. Let them make the choices for what they want to do and stop intervening in their playtime.
These tips will also help to encourage your toddler to play on their own:
Let your child take the lead
When it comes to encouraging your toddler to play independently the best thing you can do is take a big step back and just allow them to pick what they want to do.
Put out a choice of toys and see what they come up with.
Be a child supporter rather than taking the lead when they play. Allow your child to decide what they do, and do not rush to help them if it seems they are struggling.
Janet Lansbury suggests you only intervene if your child asks, and when they do ask you could help them to solve the issue themselves by asking questions that lead them to solve the problem.
Allow your child to get used to this type of play, and then they will be better set for playing without you hovering over their shoulder every time the toys come out.
Create a safe environment
Part of playing on their own means being able to explore the environment they’re in without any intervention from you.
Make their play space safe, with no potential hazards from furniture or any items that you would prefer they don’t play with within reach.
There are tons of tips for toddler-proofing your home over on this post.
Store toys in accessible places
Make it easy for your child to access their toys so that they can choose what to play with.
The Montessori system of play where you rotate groups of toys is a great way to help your child enjoy playing on their own more.
You get out two or three boxes of toys and then allow them to pick and choose from this collection what they actually want to play with.
If your child has their own playroom, then make the toy storage easy for them to reach. Low basket units and boxes that don’t have tough to open catches are the best choice.
This type of storage unit from Amazon has been a total godsend for our playroom. The kids can even tidy the toys away easily when they’re done!
Give them age-appropriate toys
While challenging your toddler is a good thing, leaving them to do a puzzle designed for four-year-olds will probably just make them frustrated.
Set them up with toys that they are capable of playing with on their own and that won’t leave them feeling bored because they aren’t able to play properly with it.
It’s also important in terms of safety to feel confident that what your child is playing with is appropriate for their age in terms of choking and strangling hazards.
When we talk about independent play, we don’t mean that you leave the house while your kid plays. You’ll still be keeping an eye on them, but it’s nice to be able to relax and not hover over your child and you’ll only be able to do that if you are happy their environment is safe.
Independent play ideas for toddlers
Dressing up and role play
Kids of all ages love to play pretend. It really sparks their imagination and you’ll witness them making up little scenarios and holding conversations with their toys as they pretend to be something else.
There are tons of great dressing up clothes on Amazon, but some firm favourites are princess dresses, cartoon characters such as the PJ Masks and uniforms such as doctors, police and firefighters.
Create a home corner
Many nurseries and early years settings have a “home corner” featuring a play kitchen, play food and even pretend cleaning tools such as toy vacuum cleaners.
This is because kids just love to pretend to be just like you!
In their playroom or bedroom, try setting up a corner that allows them to play out this type of scenario.
If you can, get a play kitchen (IKEA makes one for not too much money otherwise there are lots on the market).
Also try installing low level shelves and basket storage with items such as play food and dressing up clothes so that they can reach them easily.
There are great tips for setting up a home corner at Community Play Things.
Whether it’s simple wooden blocks or chunky toddler LEGO, there are so many things you child can do with building blocks.
You can encourage them to play with these independently by setting them a building challenge.
With the LEGO it can help to have the large square boards to build on, as they help to keep the LEGO steady.
You could also challenge your toddler to do different activities with the blocks, such as sorted them into colour piles.
Don’t leave a toddler with colouring pens close to furniture that you cherish, even if you’re only sat a few feet away!
However with washable pens there’s not too much damage they can do.
If you’re really worried about them colouring on the walls then opt for crayons and pencils which are slightly harder to do loads of damage with.
Another great independent play activity is using chalk on the pavement or patio outside. This keeps my two busy for ages.
Wipe clean writing books
These types of books are brilliant as they can be used again and again.
Amazon has some great numbers and letters practice books as well as this fab dot to dot book.
You could also make your own wipe clean writing sheets. Simply print off large letters or numbers on A4 sheets of paper, then laminate them and give washable pens to your child so they can write on them.
It’s best not to give play dough to your child until they’re two years plus due to the risk of choking.
Once they are old enough to play with it, your child will have a brilliant time squashing it into shapes. A small rolling pin and a few cookie cutters will keep them busy.
My girls love their Tonies smart speaker and it’s so easy for little ones to use.
The Tonies speaker works with little characters which your child places on top of the speaker to activate different songs, stories and content.
You can get Tonies characters such as The Gruffalo, the witch from Room on the Broom and loads more favourites.
Each Tonies character is preloaded with content. So with The Gruffalo character you get an audio version of the book. Many also have music and songs included too.
Because all your child needs to do is place the character on top of the speaker to activate it, it’s super easy to use.
Get a shoe box or similar and fill it with lots of different things, then offer it to your child so they can explore them all.
Make it a sensory experience with lots of different textures, types of item and smells. They don’t all have to be toys, you could raid your kitchen cupboards.
Some things you can include in there are:
- Large beaded necklace
- Large coins
- Pocket-sized plastic animal toys
- Metal-linked measuring spoons
- Small musical instruments such as egg shakers
- Small velvet jewellery pouch.
Rubber stamp art
Melissa and Doug do some lovely stamp art kits for kids that are easy to use.
Your child could simply use the stamps on a piece of paper, or you could give them an empty shoe box to decorate with stamps.
Gather together a few small, simple puzzles and challenge your toddler to see how long it takes for them to complete them.
My kids love these puzzles which come in tins. They’re great for travel too and I often take them with me to restaurants when I need to bring small toys to keep them busy.
You may also like:
50 fun crafts for toddlers
40 activities for toddlers