Encouraging & Building Independent Play

Encouraging & Building Independent Play

What is independent play?

Building and fostering independent play with children takes time and patience - it won’t just happen overnight!

Independent play doesn't always mean that you're in different space to your children when it happens. You could be sitting close by having a cup of tea or cooking dinner but the difference is that your children are not expecting you to play WITH them at that time.

Independent play can teach children how to be creative, imaginative and improve thier focus and thinking/problem solving skills.

All children are different and some children are happier with their own company but for others it can be a struggle.

Have a read of some tips below if you're wanting to try slip away from your children for a few mintues each day. In our home my girls play for 30 mintues each day at rest time independently where we all have a little break from each other before continuing on with the day.


How long should children play independently for?

A child on average should be able to focus on one activity/task for about 2-5 mintues for each year of age!

For example a child of:

1 Year Old is 2-5 mintues.

2 Years Old is 4-10 mintues.

3 Years Old is 6-10 mintues.

4 Years Old is 8-20 minutes.

5 Years Old is 10-25 minutes.


Start Young

Often children find the need for parents and carers to play with them as it's what they are used to. Think about when they were younger. Did you show them new toys, how they work and change what they were playing with even if they were happy?

Instead we could have left them to happily play with a simple rattle or a recycled water bottle and only step in when they were unhappy. 

I’m not saying to not interact with them but to do so in a different way. Talk about the toy that they are holding rather than getting a different one.

I myself have done this at times and no one is perfect but it is something you can remember.

We need to remember that everything is new to a child and that they can discover things for themselves and we don’t need to show them everything as they will make their own discoveries over time.


Avoid Disruptions

Since my children were little I have made sure to have moments in everyday where I step away and leave them to play even if that may have only been for 2 minutes. That time is still building up their independent play for later on.

Try to avoid unnecessary disruptions if they are playing nicely to encourage them to continue. For example: If you want your kids to come and put their shoes away but they are happily playing independently,  I would wait until they hop up from the activity they were doing and then ask them to do so rather than saying “when you’re finished playing could you put your shoes away?” Doing so will distract them and they may not go back and continue that play.

Create a YES Space

Where are you asking your children to play? Is it set up in an inviting way?

The area that you are expecting your children to play in should be set up to encourage freedom for them to choose their own activities.

When your children are in this space you shouldn’t be telling them ‘no don’t take that out,’ or ‘lets play with that later.’ Whatever is available to them in this space, they can have.


Rotate Their Toys
We personally do playroom rotations in our home which you can read more about in my other blog ‘Why I started Toy Rotation and its benefits’ here.

Toy rotation improves concentration and helps to develop a child’s focus, creating a longer attention span. Less is more and toy rotation helps avoid clutter. You’ll also find that your children will be engaged in more meaningful and focused play.

It also fosters creativity as they need to find new ways to use the same toys when they start to get bored. Don’t worry - boredom is good for them, it helps build their imagination and creative skills.


Open Ended Toys

The toys that you offer your children will also have an impact on how they play.

Open ended play is play that has no set or fixed way that a toy should be used and therefore no 'right' or 'wrong.' 

For example our daughter (2 at the time) used a tea pot and a block to shave my husband's face like she had seen a few days prior at the hairdresser. We didn't tell her "that's not a razor" or "why don't you use this?"

Instead we encouraged her to continue what she was doing by asking her to also give my husband a haircut by him saying "my hair is getting a bit long." She proceeded to put a skirt around his neck (as a cape) and use her fingers as scissors.

None of these items were the 'right' ones but they did the job and that's what open ended play is all about!

When children are offered these toys they can use them to follow their imagination and use their creativity so these toys can get a lot of love in a variety of ways and by children of many different ages.

You can read more about Engaging in Open Ended Play in my blog post here.

Child's Interests and Invitations To Play

Providing activities in the play space that cater to your child's interests is also key. 

My girls love art and craft and they always have free access to those supplies. You can read more about our art space in this blog.

Most importantly, give your children access to resources that interest them!

I also often use invitations to play to engage my kids in an activity whilst I step away for a few minutes. They can be really simple and effective for getting children to play and create whilst you're busy!

I simply select a few things that work well together off our shelf of toys and place them together in an inviting way on the coffee table or floor and the kids play with them however they would like. I don't usually tell them what to do unless they ask.

Just a few examples are:

Those are just a few ideas and we rarely do the same set up twice unless the kids really enjoyed it and ask for it again!

I have also written a blog on Essential pieces for an Open ended Toy Collection to give you an idea of what my children always have access to in our play space which you can read here


Give them ALL your attention

Before you step away for the kids to play independently, give them all your attention. Put your phone in another room and sit down with them and interact with them however THEY want.

I know there might be dishes to do, washing to fold or dinner to cook but if you give your kids your undivided attention for at least 10 minutes (more is always better!) before you ask them to play independently, you’ll have a lot more success!

If you are struggling to focus on them, put a timer on your phone and don’t get up from playing with them until it goes off. You can even tell the kids “I am going to play with you for 10 minutes but when the timer finishes I need to go and fold the washing.”


Children are very visual and I find that sand timers work best for us as they can visually see how much time they have left to play on their own.  We have a 30 minute timer and a 10 minute timer and I use them almost daily for the girls to understand my expectation of time.

We use them for rest time, independent play and sometimes time until we leave the dinner table if dinner time is being dragged out, such as eating a pea one at a time after everyone else has finished!

Making Play Longer

Start small with 2 minutes for the first few days and slowly increase the time. You should always begin with a small expectation that’s achievable for them to accomplish!

When you come back again sit down and play with them or read them a book and tell them what you got done whilst you were gone. 

For example I might say “thank you so much for playing together while I folded all the washing."

By taking all or just some of these steps you will hopefully start to see an improvement in how your children play independently.

I hope this blog has helped you understand how you can help your children build more independent play and hopefully give you some time to have a cup of tea! 

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1 comment
  • I lived reading your clear blog about encouraging independent play. Lots of simple but effective ideas to try.

    Heather on

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