In this post, we’re taking a deep look into how to get your toddler to play independently.
I’m going to help you set realistic expectations for your toddler and give you actionable steps you can take to promote independent play.
I know first-hand just how hard it is to have a clingy (high-need) toddler who just won’t play independently.
You can’t get anything done!
From the time your toddler wakes up to the time they were supposed to take a nap (but didn’t) all the way until they go to sleep at night (well after their actual bedtime), you have to be engaged with them.
It is completely exhausting.
Most of the time, you can’t even go to the bathroom by yourself (at least, not without a screaming fit).
So what can you do?
All of the resources you have (along with well-meaning friends and family) are telling you your toddler should be more independent and be able to play by himself.
That’s all well and good, but how can you actually make that happen?
FIRST OF ALL, I want you to know that your toddler’s behavior is normal and you are not failing as a mom.
In this post:
- We’re going to discuss what we can reasonably expect from toddlers;
- Shift our own mindsets on independent play, and
- I’ll walk you through 13 tactics you can used to encourage independent play in a healthy way.
There’s lots to talk about, so here we go!
Just need a few minutes to yourself without a child wrapped around your leg? Here are 13 tactical ways to help your toddler play independently!
Being Realistic About Independent Play
Before we start working on teaching our toddlers to be more independent, we need to establish a healthy and realistic framework around our understanding independence as parents.
Western culture has placed a very heavy emphasis on independence, even from babyhood.
- Our newborn babies are expected to sleep through the night far before they’re biologically programmed to.
- We are told the innate (and healthy) instinct between children and parents to be together is “separation anxiety.”
- Baby-trainers try to sell us their books and services by convincing us our babies should be more convenient.
From there, it’s a clear progression that our toddlers are supposed to play by themselves for long periods of time and express little need for us, their parents.
But here’s the deal:
Philosophy can’t replace biology.
What do I mean by that?
No amount of wishful thinking or societal expectations can change the way we’re wired as humans, least of all in our young children.
Much of our frustration as parents stems from our repeated attempts to overcome our babies’ natural biology.
As if parenthood weren’t tiring enough!
The Fear Mindset in Parenthood
What is frequently misunderstood or overlooked about independence is that it is a skill that has to be developed gradually over time.
Certainly you can force independence through various methods of detachment parenting, but it won’t do your parent-child relationship any favors.
In fact, many of our modern, western approaches to “training” independence can have long-lasting unintended consequences.
At that root of it all is fear.
Fear that if we don’t ingrain in our children all of the necessary and desirable qualities they will need as adults as early as possible, that it will be too late and we will have failed them.
Fear that our children will be “spoiled” and eternally dependent if we consistently meet all of their needs.
Fear that following our own individual instincts as parents will only result in a resounding “I told you so” from society later on if we are wrong.
Fear of judgement for not following the pack.
But fear is a liar.
The results of fear are premature action, irrational thought, panicked decisions, and short-term thinking.
Independence Develops Gradually Over Time
I’m here to reassure you that have plenty of time to teach your children the things they need for adulthood.
Choose development over training, attachment over detachment, instinct over expectation.
When it comes to independence, it WILL develop naturally over time.
It’s a skill that has to be practiced and learned, just as much as your toddler learned to walk, grasp small objects, and bring a spoon to his mouth.
Certainly, there are ways you can promote that development, but in a healthy way.
Much of the difference is in whether your focus is on the process or the result.
Are you trying to teach your toddler independence because you know it is a fundamental skill like walking and talking, or because society is telling you you’re a bad parent if your toddler can’t perform x, y, and z tricks?
Different Toddlers Have Different Needs and Abilities
Another thing you need to remember is that all children have different need and differing abilities.
Just because your toddler demands more of your attention and seems unable to play by herself for any significant amount of time does not mean you’ve done something wrong, or that she’s behind the other children.
Another toddler the same age as yours might be a pro at independent play and sit happily by himself for long periods of time while his mom is able to wash dishes, take a shower, and shop on Amazon.
But just as you shouldn’t compare when your child starts to crawl, or when you’re child learns to walk, or when your child begins to speak with other kids, you shouldn’t worry if your child develops independence at a different rate, either.
Meet your toddler where she is at, rather than telling her where she should be.
With all of that being said, there’s no way to definitively say how long your toddler should be able to play independently at whatever age.
Just like you can’t say that all babies should be able to walk at 11 months. Some babies start walking at 7 months, others don’t even try until 14 months.
Trust your child. Trust their needs. Trust their abilities.
They develop the skills they need when they are ready.
Now that we’ve adjusted our mindsets and expectations around independent play, let’s move towards how we CAN encourage independent play in a healthy way.
More posts on toddler life:
My Approach To Developing Independent play
I’ll give you my individual tips in just a second, but I wanted to start by walking you through what my approach looks like in real life.
Up until the last couple of months, I didn’t really try to establish any kind of structured independent play time.
(At the time of writing this, my toddler is 18 months old.)
If it happened, it was completely natural and organic, and if it didn’t happen, it just didn’t.
However, as my baby got older and nap times became less dependable, I felt like it was time to really begin cultivating her independence.
Setting Up for Quiet Time
The first thing I did was I moved my quiet time from early morning before she woke up to later in the morning while she’s awake.
I did this for a few of reasons:
- I wanted her to see Mommy having Bible study time;
- I wanted her to learn that Mommy and Baby could be in the same room doing different things;
- It has a beginning and end time (though the length of time varies day to day);
- It’s a consistent event that happens every day.
One way I optimize this time is by prepping the room beforehand.
- I close off the room so that she can’t leave and get into mischief
- I bring a snack and drink in for her
- I take her to the bathroom beforehand (otherwise she will deliberately use “potty” as a way to interrupt me)
- I lay out her “quiet blanket” on the floor and set out a couple of activities
Soon after starting, I realized I would need to set some firm boundaries and communicate clearly my expectations.
During our quiet time:
- She is not allowed to sit on the couch with me; she has to sit in her own chair or the floor.
- I do not get up unless I absolutely have to.
- I generally try to avoid eye contact/interacting with her, but I don’t completely ignore her like some parents recommend.
Otherwise, she is basically allowed to do anything as long as it isn’t destructive and it doesn’t interrupt me.
However she finds to entertain herself, I don’t interfere.
Sometimes that means she pulls all of the books off of our bookshelves.
Sometimes she climbs things that make me a little bit nervous.
The result is, though, that she finds creative ways to play, and for the most part, I trust her to know her limitations and learn from her errors.
Now, it’s not always easy.
Independent Play Doesn’t Always Come Easily
Quiet time usually starts with whining for “Mama!” to read to her and lift her “Up-po!” onto the couch, and descends into a tantrum when I decline.
Some of the things I say to her are a version of these:
- Baby is not allowed on the couch during quiet time; if you want to sit, you can sit in your chair.
- This is Mama’s chair; That is Baby’s chair.
- I will not read to you right now; I’m having quiet time.
- Baby reads that book, Mama reads this book.
- You can play with your toys, you can color, you can read, but you can’t interrupt Mama during quiet time.
Once I’ve reminded her of whatever boundaries she’s defying, I go about my quiet time and don’t respond to her (mostly).
After a minute or two of fussing, she sees that I mean what I said and finds better things to do.
Once I’m finished with my Bible reading, I say “Quiet time is over! What would you like me to do with you?“
Outside of quiet time, I am much more flexible with my expectations.
She is still very young, so I don’t feel like I need to push her to do have more than one structured play time per day.
The rest of the day, if she plays independently, it’s usually because she initiated it, or because I’m busy with something else.
However, that doesn’t mean I stop being intentional. There are many ways outside of structured independent time that you can promote independent play.
Some of those tactics are sprinkled into the following list.
13 Healthy Ways to Encourage Independent Play
#1. Start Small
If your toddler is still very young and/or resistant to playing independently, don’t expect to be able to just set them down with a Montessori activity and walk away for 45 minutes.
Try very short periods of time at first and try not to be frustrated if your toddler struggles with even that.
On days when I can tell my toddler is having a tougher time/is more clingy, I loosen my expectations and shorten her structured play time.
#2. Set Firm Boundaries
Being responsive to your toddler’s needs does not mean complying the instant they are expressed every single time.
Like I talked about in the last section on our quiet time setup, I prep the room beforehand so that her most urgent needs are already met.
If she comes to me wanting a different snack, my answer will be “not right now.”
As your toddler gets older, they can understand what that means. But if you say no, and then immediately give in because they persist, they will learn that you don’t mean what you say.
If you want your toddler to respect your boundaries, then YOU need to respect your boundaries.
#3. Listen to Your Instincts
As you work to instill your toddler with additional independence, it’s important that you pay attention to your own internal signals.
Just because someone else (including me) recommends a certain approach doesn’t mean it’s right for YOUR child.
You know your toddler better than anyone, so apply your judgement!
If you start something and you feel like your toddler isn’t ready, then no rush. Listen to what your gut is telling you.
Related: How to Be More Confident Trusting Your Instincts
People will suggest tactics to you that just don’t feel right and go against what you believe and value as a parent.
That doesn’t mean their method is necessarily wrong, just that it’s wrong for you.
#4. Fill Emotional Buckets First
If you want your toddler to run on his own for a little while, you’ve got to fill his tank!
Just like you wouldn’t set off across town with your fuel gauge running on empty, your can’t expect your toddler to perform independently if his emotional bucket is dwindling.
Toddlers need you to prime the pump a little… They need a catalyst to get their play started before they can keep their own motors running.
Ask your toddler what he would like to do with you for a few minutes, and then do it!
Whether it’s reading his #1 favorite book seven times in a row or building block towers for him to plow through, be wholly present.
Related: How to Be a More Present Parent
Then, after a few minutes of high quality time, let them know you need to do something and leave. Don’t doddle.
When it’s time to go, I suggest being very specific with your speech.
For example, instead of saying,
“Mama’s gotta go get stuff done. Be good and play for a while!”
Say something like,
“I’m going to go clean the bathroom. It won’t take me long, and when I’m done, I can read more books to you. For the next few minutes, I need you to read on your own.”
Your toddler will understand from your words that you’re not done playing for the rest of forever; that you’ll do a specific task with a beginning and end, and then you’ll be back.
#5. Allow Frustration, Not Desperation
One thing I think deserves distinguishing is the difference between frustration and desperation.
It’s okay to allow your toddler some frustration, whether it’s with you for not doing what she wants right then, or at an activity she’s struggling to master.
You don’t have to jump in right away. In fact, it’s far more beneficial to have the opportunity to work something out on their own.
However, I don’t allow that frustration to descend into desperation.
You know your child’s sounds. You know the difference between angry cries and panicked ones.
A mama always does.
When you hear desperation, your toddler needs to know they can count on you to be there.
This is not the time to prove a point or teach a lesson (other than “Mama is here for you”).
A couple of examples:
- Sometimes my toddler gets agitated when she is struggling to climb something. In that case, I let her be. But, when I hear a cry of a different tone, I find that she is stuck in a precarious position and needs my help to get down without getting hurt.
- If I walk out of a room, my toddler gets angry because she wanted me to stay and I didn’t. That’s okay. However, if I walk out and close the door, she’s not longer angry but panicked at having a physical barrier between us. That’s where I draw the line. If it causes her to be distressed, it’s not a good tactic for my child.
Again, use your instincts.
Parenting is not a zero sums game; there does not always have to be a winner and a loser.
#6. Be Present
When you do spend time with your toddler, make it the very highest quality you can muster.
Put your phone in another room.
Stop thinking about all of the other things you need to be doing.
Let it all go and be there in the moment with your toddler.
Related: 13 Ways You Can Be a More Present Parent (Starting Today!)
#7. Help Them Help Themselves
If you want your toddler to grow in independence, then actually give them the chance to be independent in as many areas as possible as often as you can!
It can seem like toddlers are only ever independent when you DON’T want them to be– clinging to your leg all day at home, but then insisting on walking themselves around the grocery store.
It’s important to maintain the right mindset when they frustrate us this way.
Your toddler is not trying to make you angry (most of the time) by asserting independence. He is trying to work on a new skill!
As toddlers grow, they love feeling like they’ve accomplished something for themselves.
Their timetables are totally different from ours. They don’t see the need to rush out the front door, or finish grocery shopping in record time.
When they’re ready to practice something, that’s their primary focus.
If you’re always too impatient to let her do her own socks and shoes, you won’t let her walk on her own because she’s too slow, you always assign her outfits instead of letting her choose, etc., then you’re depriving your toddler of the opportunity to practice helping herself.
And the more you assist her in helping herself (sometimes by backing off completely and letting it take as long as it takes), the more she will build confidence and the less she will require you to do things for her.
Related: 13 Ways to Empower Your Toddler
My toddler is only 18 months at the time of writing this, and already we are seeing the incredible benefits of this approach.
As time goes on, the more she is insisting “Baby!“– her way of saying that she can do it all by herself.
And at the same time, the more she is beginning to entertain herself.
It gets tiresome letting her walk herself up and down all of the stairs to our third story apartment.
It can be exhasperating to wait by the door as she takes her shoes off for the fourth time so that she can put them on again.
I get impatient waiting for her to buckle her own seat belt when I am ready to jump in the car and go.
But she is getting faster and better, and I am proud to see that she believes she can do these things herself.
#8. Encourage Creative Play
Toddlers love to explore their senses.
They also love to practice skills.
Creating a “yes” space in your house, where little to nothing is off limits, can help to encourage create play.
Furnishing open ended activities, like sensory bins and building blocks helps, too.
However, don’t get sucked down the black hole of Pinterest and Instagram activities.
Seeing all of phenomenal activities other parents purchase or create for their kids can make you feel like you have to do that, too.
What people show on the internet is just a snapshot in time.
And while it’s great to take inspiration from other people, what most of them aren’t sharing with you is the fact that their child only played with this activity for about three minutes before moving on to something else.
What you can do as a parent is make activities available in an aesthetically pleasing and organized way, but allow your toddler to choose what they work on and for how long.
Don’t try to force your toddler to be interested in something.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten my toddler a new activity that I’m stoked about, expecting her to find endless joy and entertainment from it, only to watch her pass right by and then move a blanket on and off her bed for 15 full minutes.
What your toddler is interested in might not be very fun to you, and that’s okay!
As long as it’s safe and appropriate, don’t redirect their attention to what you want them to play with. Just let them focus!
#9. Don’t Jump In or Interrupt
When your toddler DOES finally fixate on something, don’t interrupt his focus unless you absolutely have to!
That means no interjecting, “Wow, you’re doing such a great job!”
That means not popping your head in the room and distracting him.
And if you need him to do something else, like come to the table for dinner, try to wait if at all possible so that you don’t break his intense concentration.
It drives me nuts when I’m in the zone writing a blog post and my husband pokes his head in front of the screen for a kiss.
While he’s trying to be sweet and loving, it breaks my focus and causes me to lose my train of thought.
It’s no different for your toddler!
If you would expect your focus to be respected as an adult, you should demonstrate a similar respect for your child.
#10. Pay Attention to Their Interests
By paying close attention to the types of skills and activities hold your toddlers attention, you can capitalize on these things and further extend independent play.
Instead of trying to force your toddler to enjoy the activities you think they should be doing, prep her play area with things you already know she’ll like.
You can still rotate in other activities that don’t get as much attention because as you’ll find, your toddler’s interests and need shift frequently!
What didn’t get a second look last week might be her favorite thing this week.
#11. Keep Spaces Tidy
Imagine walking into your kitchen to make dinner and finding the room a disorganized wreck— dirty dishes everywhere, cooking appliances out of place, no clear counter space to work on…
Wait, you probably don’t have to use your imagination at all!
You know very well how frustrating and overwhelming it is to try and work in a mess.
While you might think toddlers love chaos and messes, the opposite is actually true.
Little people thrive on order and consistency.
It improves their focus and attention span, and just as the state of a space impacts your mood, it does theirs, as well.
Try to keep their spaces tidy as much as possible and organize their things in an aesthetically pleasing way.
I have found with my 18 month old that just by setting the example and helping her to pick up activities as she finishes with them, she has begun cleaning up herself, placing everything carefully back in its basket and putting it in its place on the shelf.
I don’t force her to do it, and if she’s not interested in helping, she doesn’t have to (yet).
More and more, she is taking the lead on organizing her things without any guidance.
#12. Be Consistent
Your toddler needs to know what he can expect from you.
I have found that daily quiet time at the same point in our routine each morning is a great way to demonstrate consistency and promote independent play.
It’s also important to stick to your boundaries (most often than not) and remain firm.
When your toddler knows what to expect, he will be more confident and comfortable to play on his own because he knows what’s going on.
Make independent play routine!
#13. Stay On Your Feet
If you want your toddler to play independently, stay busy moving around on your feet.
In my experience, sitting down signals to them you have nothing better to do than engage with them, even if you were about to pay bills or write a blog post.
My toddler is a zillion times more likely to go off on her own and play when I am working through my daily cleaning routine than when I sit down at the desk to work.
Save sedentary tasks for nap time.
It is possible to sit down, even in the same room, but you’ll need to be very firm about your spacial boundaries and clear on your expectations for them… Easier said than done (which is probably why you’re here reading this!)
I want to know where you’re at…
Which of these tips are you going to try first?
Do you have any tips of your own to add?