Encouraging Independent Play

Since starting kindy Immy has been coming home craving mummy-time. “Come play with me, Mama,” has become a common refrain both in the afternoons after I pick her up and on non-kindy days. While I do spend time playing with her, I know that it is important for her to be able to play independently and it is important for her to understand that I have jobs to do, especially with the arrival of a new baby on the horizon.

So this is how I am currently encouraging her independent play…

independent play

Acknowledge and honour her need for mama time
The fact is that Immy and I have been home together for four years. Kindy is a big change for her and although she loves it, it takes a lot out of her. She comes home tired and hungry and these are classic cues for the onset of the needy preschooler.  I manage this by making sure I have a cold drink and filling snack ready for her to eat in the car when I pick her up and by giving her a short period of uninterrupted playtime together, playing a game of her choice, once we get home. I like to think of it as filling up her tank full of mama love again :)

I then excuse myself to undertake dinner preparations or other chores and she is generally then good to keep playing on her own. I know that the arrival of a new baby will make this time more difficult to manage but even if it is reading together while I feed or going for a walk together in the park after school with the baby in the pram, I intend to continue to try to make this transition time between school and home as smooth as possible.

independent play

Providing open ended toys and making them accessible
It might seem obvious but a big part of encouraging children to play independently is making sure that they have open ended toys that are relevant to their current interests and stage of development easily accessible so that they can get on and play.

independent play

Invitations to play and being nearby
I am still setting up invitations to play or invitations to create regularly. Not everyday, but especially on days when I have work to do.  I suggest starting with what your child loves to play with and creating a simple but attractive play scene that incorporates and extends upon their interest and then letting them play. For example,

  • If they love to play with dolls, set up a pretend tea party or picnic with their dolls.
  • If they love to play with dinosaursfairiesfarm animalswild animalssea animals – superheroes – princesses – etc, create a miniature world or landscape to use in play with their figurines. Read more about creating miniature worlds and loose parts for imaginative play.
  • If they love to play with a doll house, add small boxes and scraps of fabric so they can create some ‘new’ furniture or accessories.
  • If they love to play with cars or trains, add wooden blocks, small people and other small items to create a landscape or city around their trains and roads (a large sheet of box cardboard with roads drawn onto it in permanent marker makes a great base).
  • If they love to play with playdough, set it up on a table with something interesting to create with it – dried pasta and noodles, or small gumnuts, stones and sticks, or patty pans and matchsticks.
  • If they love to draw, set up large pieces of paper with some new drawing utensils – try oil pastels or magic colour change felt tipped pens, or metallic crayons/felt tipped pens and black paper.

I set this up somewhere close to where I am busy working or doing chores, so that we can still talk and interact as need be.

Involving her in my chores
If Immy is still requesting my involvement and attention, I invite her to help me with what I need to do, finding her a task to help with dinner preparation or folding and putting away laundry or whatever else I am doing.  She then has the choice to come and help or keep playing on her own.

So far this combination of strategies is working well for us but I am always open to new ideas and would love to hear, how do you encourage your children to play independently or answer the call of ‘I’m bored’?

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  1. As always, a great post Christie. Your blog is so very relevant to me with Grace just a year behind Immy and I’ve found your blog so very inspiring lately :) I think your idea of ‘Mummy and snack time’ when Immy gets home from kindy is perfect. Also, your idea of setting up little play activities to entice Immy to play independently is very clever. I find that if Grace is playing somewhere nearby to me and if I keep interacting with her for example by asking questions about what she is doing while she’s playing, she’s happier to occupy herself. Having some new toys or fun activities to do while you are occupied with your new bub is a must for sure. Back in the early weeks with Sophie when breasfteeds seemed to take up to an hour, I had some special activities for Grace to do which I could help her with at the same time – a new floor puzzle, some sticker activity books etc. Now breastfeeding is only a ten minute task though and these activities are less necessary.

  2. Great ideas, a very timely post as my daughter recently started school and like yours needs my attention on arrival home, I like the idea of setting up some things like art or tea party – maybe we can do together when she has had a snack before I do dinner etc. Thanks

  3. Great post, I am passing this on to my sister who has one young child and one on the way.

  4. I’ve been struggling with this myself; I stay home with my almost 3 yo but I teach part time at night and need time during the day to get prep and grading done. Unfortunately as soon as he sees me getting involved with something serious, he calls me over to “share” his trains. (I love that he uses that language, since he knows we’ve been encouraging him to share! How can I resist?)

    I tried setting a timer and telling him I could play when the timer beeped, but that didn’t work. Then I thought maybe an hourglass and found this:

    I just made it yesterday and haven’t tried it with the boy yet . . . and it’s only 7 minutes, but that might be a good starting point anyway. I’ll let you know how it goes!

  5. This is so relevant to me at the moment, Christie. My 4 year old is very needy of attention at the moment. His 2 big brothers (9 & 6) have been playing together a lot lately which is lovely but the 4 year old is often left out. Not so much because they don’t want him around but because what they want to play is a bit beyond him or he’s not interested. He has never been very good at playing on his own and I’m really not that good at playing with him as I have so much else to do. I think all your tips in this post are the way to go with him though so I’ll be trying them all out this week – thanks :-)

  6. I love this post – such great ideas. Makes me realize it’s time to revamp my monster’s playroom to make it easier for independent play.

  7. I have been struggling to encourage solo play with my two year old. These are great tips and a a helpful reminder that I am on the right track, I think all I need now is more patience since he’s only just two. Thanks again!

  8. Independent Play has been such a blessing and lifesaver in our home w 2 kids. I start young and keep it fairly structured and consistent – I find the routine makes them enjoy it more and know what to expect. I have been SHOCKED at how the kids embrace it and i over hear them playing at levels of creativity I never witness at other times. Here is our take on it

  9. what a great post that have such great ideas I can use. it is very helpful. i am looking forward to seeing more ideas about encouraging children to be independent.


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