how to get your kids to play independently

::: disclaimer: I am no parenting expert and I recognize + celebrate all types of parenting. this is just how we've done things in our home, and seen great success. :::

My kids are by no means golden children. If you've been around my home, or I've been to yours, particularly near 4pm, you know this first hand. Toddlers act like toddlers (typical two's anyone?), and yes, my hands are often "full" :)

But this is a fairly common sight in my home too:

Which would surprise you if you knew my kids (like I said, especially around the witching hour of 4pm!). They're a hand full, but they're also excellent at independent play. I'm often asked how I got them to do so, and my answer is probably going to disappoint you. I didn't intentionally do anything. But a lot happened that I think contributed...

When Lily was only 5 months old, I got pregnant with Oli. So basically from when she was 5 months old, I have been limited - in one way or another - in how I can get down and play with her. 
From 5-8 months I was dealing with intense fatigue and nausea, not on the floor playing airplane. 
And when Lily was 12-15 months, I was on bed rest with extreme back pain, not having tea parties. And after that, well, I had a newborn. 

I've dealt with some guilt for those months where I wasn't able to be there for Lily as much as I'd have liked. But looking back at those unavoidable circumstances, I think it's developed Lily into the independent girl she is, and I'm thankful. She and I still have an amazing bond and I'm probably her most consistent playmate, but I'm not her only source of entertainment, and I rarely ever was. 

She loves reading with me, and that was one thing I continued doing when I was either on the couch with nausea or on bed rest, but she also reads alone all.the.time. With her speech delay it's pretty hilarious. But she just babbles her way through every page of every book, and really, she prefers magazines :)

One great thing is that I'm seeing similar practices with Oli in the area of independent play.
 Partly again from necessity - the tables have turned and now his sister is the demanding one (typical two's!) and also on purpose. While it wasn't intentional with Lily, we're doing the same thing with Oli because we've seen that not being available at her beckoned call nor being the constant source of entertainment really helped Lily grow in independence.

So, if you want my advice on how I get my kids to be such great indy players, I don't have a surefire answer. Every child is different and some parenting styles won't jive well with my suggestion. But I believe it has to do with how Lily and Oli were treated as babies. Not on purpose at first, but the serendipitous events lead us this way and we're glad they did. 

But you don't have to get pregnant immediately to have these results. Jen Wilkin, who teaches a terrific online parenting class, calls it "Intentional Laziness". You don't have to be there for your babies or toddlers or kids every.single.second. In your absence, they are growing and learning and developing!
Please don't think I'm suggesting you ignore them all the time - that would be abuse - but consider each time and try to cut back on being their personal servant.  Engage your children, but also consider how it could build their character more to let them learn how to do it themselves instead of you helping nonstop. 

As I type this, Lily is sorting through clean laundry and having a blast. She's walking from pile to pile and babbling to herself as she goes. Sure, she might also enjoy us doing something together, and when this is posted and I finish the dishes I intend to have a tickle fest and do some reading with her. But right now, I'm taking some mom time, and she's no worse for it. In fact, she may even be better off :)


  1. Thanks for posting. Hannah has never been the best at independent play, but she is getting better. I remember awhile ago when I went to pick her up from the nursery 2 of the workers went on and on at what a doll she is and so good. They never had to worry about her because she was so good at independent play. Say what?! I know she's a doll, but at that point at home she would play alone for maybe 5 min max and then come looking for me to play with her. I love playing with Hannah, but I do not always want to play with the same toy over and over and over again all day long, so once I heard that she can play independently well I went on a mission to figure out how it would work well.

    First step was our morning reading time! It worked so well. Hannah LOVES to read to herself just like Lily so what we would do is after breakfast I would say it was reading time, she would grab some books and climb into her favourite chair, I would grab my coffee and Bible and on would go at least 20 minutes sometimes up to 40 of happy parallel reading time! Soon becoming my favourite time of the day!

    The thing is that I have learnt in Hannahs personality that aside from reading, since she is so social she would much rather play with someone. Even in toddlers now, she is always trying to play and interact with the kids or volunteers. So I recognize that I need to let her have time to play with other kids and I need to play with her, but also balance that with her playing alone. What that means though is I need to go into a seperate room so she does not see me. If she doesn't see me she can happily play alone, but the second she sees me she brings her game right to me.

    This one is an ongoing learning curve in understanding Hannah, how she works and how she can play more independently and how I can get more mom time during the day!

  2. Laura Hodgson3.7.12

    Independent play is so wonderful for both the child and parent. Gives the parent a break, while the child learns to use his/her imagination on their own. We have found Coral gets the most creative when she plays by herself. We started independent play when' she was really little as well. Everyday, for a little while, we would make her play by herself. Now she just knows that when I'm not busy, I will play with her, but if things need to get done around the house she has to play by herself. Hopefully she is still this great at independent play when the baby comes eh.

  3. Anonymous3.7.12

    Mu great niece and nephew are the most adorable kids in the world!!
    Hugs from Proud Auntie Shirley