When it comes to play, one of the questions I get asked the most is, ‘why won’t my child play independently?’ It is a real source of anxiety and concern because it also adds to the parental load. If you never get a chance to have time to yourself because you feel like you are a 24/7 child entertainer then after a while, your wellbeing will start to suffer.
Let me offer just a little bit of reassurance however, your child is definitely capable of playing independently, but they may just need a little coaxing and encouragement first.
So let’s take a look at four common reasons why your child isn’t playing independently right now:
A note on independent play times:
Before we begin, It’s worth noting how incredibly short independent play times really are.
On average, it’s just 2-5 minutes per year of age:
2 years: 4-10 minutes
3 years: 6-15 minutes
4 years: 8-20 minutes
5 years: 10-25 minutes
(source: Gaerner et al. 2008 – Journal of Infant Development)
Before you despair though, the tips below will definitely help you when it comes to extending play times!
1. Lack of open-ended toys in the play space
One of the reasons your child might not be playing independently is because they are a little bored by their toys! Try to ensure that at least 70% of the toys in the play area are open-ended. Simply put, this means toys that can be played with in multiple ways.
These are the toys that can grow with your child too – wooden blocks are a good example here as there are just so many possibilities for play!
You can read more about our favourite open-ended toys here.
Try setting up a play invitation with 2-3 of your child’s toys to help prompt them to play. If your child isn’t used to playing independently then this is a good way to show them new ways to play.
This can be as simple as adding some wooden blocks to an acrylic mirror or beginning a train track. You can read more about play invitations here.
2. There isn’t enough time dedicated to free-play
One of the common problems with modern parenting is the misconception that we have to turn ourselves into 24/7 child entertainers in order to be ‘good’ parents.
Instagram and Pinterest can certainly help us to get ideas and inspiration for our children, but it can also make us feel like we always have to be doing something WITH our children when in reality, playing independently (and without us) is crucial for their development.
Establishing a simple daily rhythm with plenty of opportunities for free, independent play will help to get your child playing independently. This is because they will begin to understand that they will be able to really get into play instead of being interrupted to go and do a planned activity!
The Playful Days at Home toolkit will help you establish a gentle daily rhythm for your child – you can read more about it here.
3. You give too many directions on how they should play
Is it good to sit down and play with your child? Yes, absolutely – it’s a great cup-filling activity. But if you are constantly interrupting the flow of play and telling them how they should do it, they are going to be put off from playing independently!
A much better approach in the toddler years is to sit side-by-side. Grab some toys from the play space and do your own thing: they may join in, they might not!
By the time your child reaches the preschool years, they are likely to be much more into imaginary play. With my daughter (5), she takes on the role of director and I take her lead. Right now she loves to re-enact school. Typically she wants me to be the teacher and she is the children.
Another easy switch you can make is to keep planned activities really simple and open-ended. I post daily activities over on Pinterest – come and follow me there!
4. There has been a change in routine and they need reassurance
I’m sure that you can agree that we are living in crazy times. Depending on where you are in the world right now, you might be in lock-down or not. The upheaval and changes in routine can leave our children needing reassurance.
If they can’t verbalise this yet, they are more likely to want to stick close to us. If you think your child might be anxious, Dr Kelly Fradin recently wrote a guest post about anxiety in children, which you can read here.
Another reason that you child might not be playing independently could be as simple as a change of routine. This actually happened to us recently when my 5 year-old daughter went back to school after the end of lockdown. Whilst she has adjusted to this change absolutely fine, my youngest son (3) really struggled with the loss of his play buddy.
Here’s what I did to get him playing independently again:
- I made sure that they play space primarily catered to his interests and developmental stage
- I adopted a new daily rhythm so he got used to the times I could play and when I needed to get on with other tasks
- I set up play invitations and sat with him (side by side) before going to make a cup of tea. I then started to extend this to longer tasks – fast-forward a few weeks and i’m now able to write this blog post whilst he plays independently in the background!
- We got outside plenty. He is a very active child, so we spend a lot of time running around at the park or up in our roof garden.