The pandemic has upended family dynamics and routines, creating the need for parents to rethink how they balance the competing demands of working from home and parenting. When children play by themselves, it buffers parents against burnout by providing them with much-needed space to replenish and get work done. The demand for evidence-based strategies to promote independent play is likely to outlast the pandemic as workplaces shift towards flexible work-from-home policies.
Independent play is not just a matter of convenience for parents. Through independent play, children also develop their sense of agency, problem-solving skills, and autonomy. So what can research tell us about how parents can encourage their children to play independently?
Rotate Toys to Limit Distractions
Imagine observing a toddler in a playroom packed with toys. They would probably bounce from toy to toy leaving you with the impression that they have a short attention span. Although it’s true that children’s attention spans improve as they mature, parents can adjust the attentional demands of their child’s environment to create a better fit with their child’s developmental level. Rotating toys is a popular strategy that has been shown to be an effective way to limit distractions in a child’s play environment. The idea of toy rotation is to have a few toys accessible to the child and to keep the rest in storage until, after a period of time, the parent rotates them. The timing of the rotations and which toys get rotated in and out are flexible. If a child always asks for a certain toy, then that toy can stay in rotation for several rounds (or indefinitely).
The best part about toy rotation is that it works. In a study published in Infant and Behavior Development, researchers tested how having fewer toys around changed toddlers’ play patterns. They presented toddlers with either 4 or 16 toys and then sat back and observed for about 20 minutes. When the toddlers were presented with 16 toys, they moved from toy to toy. On average, they played with 8 of the 16 toys during the 20 minutes. None of the toddlers played with just one toy.
When the toddlers were only presented with 4 toys, they spent more time playing with one single toy. They were more focused as they played and used the toy in a variety of ways showing greater curiosity and creativity.
As toddlers, children are beginning to develop their attention skills. It can be difficult for them to hold their attention on any given toy or activity. However, the results from this study suggest that toddlers are capable of focusing on one toy if there aren’t too many toys around to distract them.
Give Clearly Defined Tasks
According to a 2018 study published in Behavior Interventions, giving a child a clearly defined task may be more effective at promoting independent play than giving broad directions. For example, instead of saying, “I need to finish reading this. Please go play with your toys,” caregivers can try saying, “Here are some puzzles. Do two of them while I finish reading this.” This subtle change in communication was shown in the study to encourage independent play.
Although this is a handy strategy for when a parent needs 15 minutes to get something done, it might not be the best strategy for longer stretches of time. Play that is child-led is generally more conducive to extended periods of independent play.
Independent play is a skill and it can be challenging, particularly for younger children. It’s important that caregivers have patience and realistic expectations as their children practice playing on their own. At first, a child might only play by themselves for a couple of minutes at a time. Gradually, and with support, they can play independently for longer periods.
For example, if your child asks you to play with them, but you need to finish writing an email, try saying, “I need two minutes to finish writing this. Then I’ll play with you.” After the two minutes are up, let them know that you noticed something positive about their play like their focus or persistence. Then play with them for a few uninterrupted minutes. The next time a situation like this happens, extend the time by a minute. Gradually, children will learn that their patience will be rewarded and that they are capable of directing their own play.
Observe Your Child
You are the expert of your own child’s development. What works for your child might be completely different than for another. What works for your child one day might not work the next. This comes down to observing your child. Ask yourself, what time of day does my child tend to play independently? Is it when they’re tired and winding down? Or is it when they’re excited and energized, with lots of play ideas? Do they get distracted when the TV is on in the background? By taking the time to observe your child, you hone your ability to troubleshoot and create a play environment that is a good fit for them.
Create a Play Plan
Spending a few minutes creating a “play plan” together in the morning can help children learn to play independently for longer and foster complex play narratives. A play plan is a tool that many preschool teachers use at the beginning of the school day. The teacher talks to the child about their plan with the goal of having them stick to it, often for several hours. The teacher also helps them document their plan. Depending on a child’s developmental level, the plan can be a drawing or a simple sentence. The teacher can nurture children’s planning skills by asking them open-ended questions.
The concept of a play plan seems to be contradictory. Play is usually thought of as being spontaneous, yet a plan implies structure. However, play planning is a method that has been shown to combine the benefits of play with an exercise in cognitive and literacy skills. Having children decide for themselves how to spend their time encourages the development of their self regulation.
With time and with support, children can build their capacity to engage in independent play that is creative, complex, and empowering. At the same time, parents can reclaim stretches of the day to work or to take care of themselves.
Beaulieu, L., & Povinelli, J. L. (2018). Improving solitary play with a typically developing preschooler. Behavioral Interventions, 33(1).
Dauch, C., et al. (2018). The influence of the number of toys in the environment on toddlers’ play. Infant and Behavior Development, 50, 78-87.
Roskos, K., & Christie, J. (2011). The play-literacy nexus and the importance of evidence-based techniques in the classroom. American Journal of Play, 4, 20.