Sharing different ways we encourage toddler to play independently from 1-2 years old to help build confidence, problem-solving skills, focus and creativity.
Encourage Solo-Play from Infancy
Encouraging solo play from infancy benefits both your child and your whole family. Independent play will help your baby discover their own play preferences and develop creativity. Having children who are comfortable with solo-play will free up parents to work from home or complete other tasks. It’s especially helpful to have Bibi play by herself now that I am working from home (here’s how I manage).
I learned about the benefits of solo-play before I had Bibi, so we made a concerted effort to encourage solo play from the time that she was an infant. You can read more about how we helped facilitate solo play from 2-12 months in this post. As Bibi has entered toddlerhood, we try to continue to cultivate an environment where she has the opportunity and desire to play independently.
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Setting the Foundation for Independent Play
Parents’ preparation is no doubt the biggest influence on how well their children play independently. We learned that there are many things you can do to set the stage for success. I’ll share them with you below.
I talked about how a “Yes Space” helped our daughter play independently in my last post. A Yes Space is a defined area where a child can safely and freely play and explore. This helps foster independent play because parents can feel comfortable leaving their child alone for a few minutes and children are excited to have an area where nothing is off-limits.
We still have a Yes Space for Bibi, although it is much bigger than before. Now that she has matured mentally and has an increased need for physical space, we have expanded the Yes Space beyond her initial play area. Her new Yes Space includes her play area, the living room, and dining area. Not only does she have more room to run around, but I think it also helps her self-confidence and independence when she sees we trust her in a larger space. (And truth be told, she no longer wanted to be cut off from the other parts of the home.)
Independent play doesn’t necessarily mean that parents are completely physically removed from the play area. To help her feel secure playing independently, I placed my office desk inside her Yes Space. This way, I can be productive and she feels comforted knowing mom is nearby. Now that she is older, I can trust her not to pull on the wires near my desk out of curiosity.
To prepare a Yes Space where your 1-2-year-old can safely play solo you should:
- Decide on an area that is appropriate or their age/size: The older the child, the bigger your Yes Space should be.
- Remove or place dangerous items out of reach
- Designate special toys or bins of activities that you can pull out for your child in the Yes Space. Alternating toys/activities will make them more exciting and easier to clean up.
Finding the Right Time for Independent Play
Timing plays a critical role in successful independent play…especially with toddlers. Just like you want the play space to be inviting and safe, you want to make sure your child is feeling happy and content before you encourage them to spend time playing on their own.
For 1-2 year-olds, make sure that their basic needs are met before beginning a session of independent play. Is your child rested? Do they have a clean diaper or need to use the restroom? Did they recently have a snack or meal?
I have discovered that when Bibi is clingy and won’t play without me, it often has to do with an unmet need. I do a double-check to see if she needs something that she can’t verbalize to me. Usually, a light snack or a glass of milk will help prepare her for successful solo-play. Try these easy healthy snack recipes for babies and toddlers: Nutritious Banana Oat Muffin & Healthy Sourdough Flaxseed Discard Crackers.
Focused Time Throughout the Day
Another way to help prepare your toddler to play independently is by making sure that during the rest of the day you are giving them plenty of focused attention and time. This advice might sound contrary, but giving Bibi more attention throughout the day helps her feel comfortable and confident when it is time for solo-play. On days where we are busy and less involved with Bibi, she struggles with playing on her own.
Focused time doesn’t necessarily mean playtime. You can have your child help with chores around the house, work on art projects or school work together, or even have them help with meal prep. The important element of focused time is that you are engaging with your child and aren’t distracted. During my focused time with Bibi I put down my phone, we talk or sing songs or just sit on the sofa with a book. Making an effort to show attention to your child before encouraging independent play will help immensely.
Ideas for Independent Play
What does independent play look like? It changes from day to day, and definitely will look different from family to family. You may need to experiment to see what types of products and activities will work for your child.
Here are some of our favorite toys and the methods we use to help Bibi play independently. Some days Bibi is more interested in certain types of toys or play. We try to observe what she is enjoying that day and then get her started on similar activities before leaving her to play by herself.
There was a marked difference in Bibi when she moved from infant to toddlerhood. It has been fun to see her imagination and love of pretend play develop.
As she started doing more imaginative/pretend play, she was drawn to toys that help her act out everyday activities. Some of her favorite imaginative play products are play kitchens and shopping carts.
With imaginative play, we have found that getting Bibi started by playing with her for a few minutes really helps her transition to solo-play. Once she is engaged in her imaginative scenario, we let her continue her adventures solo.
Other imaginative play activities include costumes/dress-up, tea parties, puppets, pretend camping, dolls, and stuffed animals.
Problem Solving & Motor Skill Activities
Activities that encourage your child’s development problem solving and motor skills are wonderful vehicle for independent play. You can choose activities that require some set up like sensory bins or invitation to play trays, or you can use ready made products or toys.
Bibi loves building with Tegu blocks. These blocks magnetically link together, making it easy to build without being frustrating. We also introduced large Lego blocks when she was 18 months old. For Bibi, the lego blocks were a bit too advanced so we are saving them for when she gets older. There are many varieties of blocks that can help your child with motor skills including foam blocks or cardboard blocks.
Puzzles also work well for independent play. High-quality wooden puzzles from manufacturers like Hapa or Melissa and Doug will last for years. There are many different types of puzzles available including magnetic puzzles and stacking puzzles.
Even simple fine motor activities can be appealing to toddlers and help them play independently. You can poke spaghetti noodles into a pile of play-doh and give your child a handful of cheerios. Show them how to slide the cheerios onto the noodles and then let them try it on their own.
Another simple fine motor activity uses play tweezers and felt pom poms. On the table, place one bowl or cup for each color of pom pom. Show your child how to sort the pom poms into cups by color and then encourage them to finish sorting. You can do this with any type of colorful objects you already have in your home.
Physical play is a great way to develop gross motor skills and encourage healthy independent activity. As Bibi has gotten older and developed better balance, we have found several physical activities she can do independently. She has an indoor bike she enjoys. She also loves to play with her water table outside in the yard.
There are many climbing structures that would be excellent for independent play including a Pikler triangle or even a simple slide. It is amazing how long a toddler can play on a slide.
Climbing mats like these will encourage lots of fun physical play for toddlers. Even something as simple as toddler music and some instruments like maracas can give children the opportunity to move and dance in a healthy way.
Bibi loves to explore new objects and different parts of the house. When and where it is safe, this is a great way to encourage independent play and give yourself free time.
Bibi has a special fascination with our pantry area. It works well to let her explore that area while I cook. I made sure to remove/move higher any items that could be hazardous to her including heavy cans and boxes of food that she might want to open and eat. Once the dangers were removed, this created a Yes Space for exploration play.
If the idea of making a whole space safe for exploring seems daunting, you can do it on a smaller scale by offering a little grouping of similar items. For instance, a basket of safe pantry items that you pull down for exploration play.
Bibi’s dad and I have also started saving interesting product packaging for her to play independently with. Objects like cardboard boxes, mint tins and clean plastic bottles with flip caps are perfect for her to explore independently.
Keep Toys Fresh and “New”
A very helpful strategy for encouraging independent play from infancy is to minimize toy clutter and rotate toys. Access to too many toys at a time can actually be overwhelming to children.
We rotate Bibi’s toys by choosing a select few to have out each day. This keeps the toys novel and exciting for her and clean and tidy for the rest of us. Consider having bins with an assortment of toys that you keep up high in a closet. Each night after Bibi goes to sleep, we pull out the bin of toys for her to play with the next day.
You can also add “new” playthings to your rotation in creative ways. You can purchase quality used toys, consider toy swapping with friends, or find objects from around the house that are interesting to your toddler.
Tips to help Toddler Play Independently
As with everything in parenting, we have learned better ways of encouraging independent play as we’ve raised Bibi. Here are some of our top tips and tricks for helping your 1-2 year-old play by his/herself.
- Set the scene: Instead of just dumping a pile of toys and expecting your toddler to figure it out, spend a few minutes playing with them in the beginning of their independent playtime.
- Don’t interfere: It might be tempting to “correct” or direct play for your toddler, but try not to interfere in their independent play. Healthy child development includes trying things in non-conventional ways.
- Have reasonable expectations for how long independent play will last: As alluring as a several hour break sounds, children have to develop skills in order to play independently. While I haven’t found a clear consensus on how long a child can play independently for, Parents.com suggests, “The older a child is, the longer he’ll be able to play alone. For example, at 6 months, a child may be content by himself for 5 minutes; at 12 months, for 15 minutes; at 18 months, about 15 to 20 minutes; and at 2 years, for about half an hour.”
- Give advance notice about when play will end: If you have somewhere to go, or are transitioning to another activity make sure to let your child know ahead of time that playtime is about to end. A special visual timer clock like this one can help your child see how much time they have left.
- Allow time for cleanup to foster responsibility: Keep several minutes open at the end of independent play for clean-up. You will never regret fostering this skill!
- Be flexible: Remember that your toddler is a little human with needs and feelings. Some days you might need to switch activities halfway through playtime, other days you might need to play right next to them. Pay attention to what your child needs and adapt so that independent playtime doesn’t become a negative experience.
What do I do if my Toddler Won’t Play Alone?
We all have friends (or friends of friends) with toddlers who play for hours on end by themselves. It can feel frustrating if that isn’t our experience. It helps to remember that a child’s temperament or personality can shape how well they do with independent play. Even their temporary physical needs can make them less likely to want to play alone! If you have a toddler who never wants to play alone, or who, like Bibi, has some days where she wants us right by her side, that is okay! Each day will vary, some days our little toddler can play independently for 40 minutes if something happens to catch her attention, some days, she might play for 5 minutes and realize that she rather be glued to me.
Solo-play has many developmental benefits, so I would try to encourage it on a smaller scale if your child has difficulty playing alone. As your child gets older they will inevitably begin to develop the skills for solo play. Try to enjoy this special time of playing with your little one while at the same time stretching any independent play they will do (even if it moves at a very slow pace).
We have seen many benefits from encouraging Bibi to play independently from infancy. I hope the information and products I shared will help you feel empowered to make solo-play a part of your baby’s life.
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