How can I get my child to play independently?

Q. My daughter (age 2 1/2) is very ‘full on’ for want of a better term. I’m a stay-at-home mum, and from the moment we get up till the moment she goes to bed, she demands constant attention all day. She doesn’t play by herself and always asks me to play with her … which of course I do, but I was wondering if there is any way I can help her learn to play by herself?

Any activities I put out, she needs me to play with her. The problem is I find myself putting on TV in order to get dressed, load the dishwasher, etc. As a baby she was the same and I’m afraid I did let her watch TV before age 2 as again with having a husband that’s worked long hours and no family nearby this was my only ‘break’/time to get things done. –F.S.

A. First, please don’t beat yourself up over the TV. Breaks = sanity, which is more important! We do what we need to do.

Here are four ways to gradually teach your daughter to play alone. (For those of you with kids younger than 2 1/2, start here to foster independence.)

1. Give her the choice of joining you.

“I am going to load the dishwasher. Would you like to help or would you like to play (on the kitchen floor / in the next room)?”

“I am going to get dressed. Want to help me with my bra strap?”

“Let’s make dinner. I’ll hold the fish while you pat it dry with this paper towel. OK, first you put on some salt and pepper. Then it’s mommy’s turn. Now hold open your hand for some olive oil, and we’ll drizzle it back and forth together.”

2. Let her direct her own playing.

Instead of putting out an activity for her, have open-ended toys in a place she can reach. Blocks. Dolls. Modeling clay. Crayons & paper. Cushions & sheets to make a fort. Maybe you start out sitting with her. But you’re not at all directing anything. Just say what you see. “You’re making a tower. That tower is taller than you!” “You show me.” “Ooh, you chose green and blue.”

If she likes books, indulge her in reading the same one over and over so she can memorize it. Eventually she can turn the pages and tell herself the story.

If you notice she’s engrossed in something, try not to interrupt if possible. Sometimes I’ll spot my daughter’s shoes on the floor or whatever, turn to say, “Put away your shoes,” and have to stop myself. It’s not urgent. And not more important to me than her experiencing extended play.

3. Start out with short separations.

Say, “I’m going to do X; I’ll be here where you can see me.” When she seems OK with a few of those, move on to: “We will read this book together / We will make one drawing together. Then I need to do X while you play alone. After that, we can read / draw together again.” If she comes to find you, try to take it as information, not irritation. Try, “You played as long as you could. We’ll practice that again later.” When that’s going well, go do your thing with a casual: “I’ll be back to check on you in a few minutes.”

In all of these cases, when you come back together, name a strength: “You know how to play independently.” Join her for a bit, because your attention is the best reward. Repeat. Gradually increase the time you’re away. (This is the same concept as one of my favorite sleep tips.)

If you can plan for this play time around the same times of day, the predictability may make it easier for her.

4. Acknowledge / empathize with her emotions.

“You’re feeling upset. You want me to keep playing with you. I really love playing with you, too. We can play again after I finish / when the timer goes off.”

If you’re trying to cut out the screen time altogether, let her know ahead of time. “We used to do that, but I’ve changed my mind.” Or “We’re going to save that for Saturday evenings,” or whatever your new rule is. And acknowledge any disappointment around that.
It’s work, reaching the point of playing independently. Especially since we want it to happen faster than it probably will. But I can tell that you’re up for it. Let me know what you try and how it goes!

Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Written by

Tracy Cutchlow

Tracy is the author of the international bestseller Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, a public speaker, and a creator of places to speak and be heard. Sign up for her newsletter here.

4 thoughts on “How can I get my child to play independently?

  1. Tracy, this is great! Your suggestions are easy to implement, step by step, and help the child feel successful and proud along the way. Perfect recipe for helping kids embrace independence.

    1. Absolutely. Acknowledging emotions is about staying present–even though the emotion may be uncomfortable for you, saying what you see (, and changing your goal from getting the feelings to stop to helping your child have the full feelings.

      “You really wanted that. It can be so upsetting when we make a big change / don’t get something we want / stop doing something we like. You’re crying / stomping / (whatever is happening). You’re letting out your feelings.”

      Try to match your child’s energy level. This could be more intense: “You’re stomping! Yes! Oooh, double stomps! You know how to get your anger out!” or more empathetic: “Oh, sweetie, I’ll hold you while you cry.”

      Some cases call for a little guidance: “You’re feeling so mad and you kicked him. Must be something you could kick with no hurting. … Ah, you found a solution.” “You hit me. That’s not OK with me. Hmm, you hit a little more softly. Oh, even more softly. There are your gentle hands. … That really takes self-control.”

      Let me know if you try it, Paige!

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