Our kids are great, right? But sometimes, you need a break! That’s why it’s important for kids to learn how to play by themselves.
Maybe you’re suddenly working from home and need to deal with conference calls and email replies. Or maybe you need time to clean house without “help” so you can get done more quickly.
Or maybe you just want a moment without anyone begging you for attention! Regardless, it really helps for your kids to be able to play by themselves.
Here’s 9 tips to help you get your kids to play independently, so you can do what needs to be done.
See independent play as a teachable skill
If you’re trying to get your kids to play by themselves for the first time and it’s a disaster of constant whining and frustration, don’t give up!
For kids to “be good” at playing alone, they need practice. The more chances kids get to play independently, the better they’ll get at it.
If you set up independent play as part of a routine (say, in the morning after breakfast), eventually your child will know what to expect and be more willing to play on their own.
Plus, you can help your child see their play as something for them to think about and problem-solve with. For example, once I set up an activity by taping paper towel tubes to the wall, but the tubes kept falling off. Instead of letting my kids get upset about it, I told them that part of the fun was rebuilding the set-up. This worked, and my kids were super-excited about taping the tubes back to the wall.
Don’t rely on screen time
I have found with my children that if I don’t keep a tight rein on screen time, things start to go downhill. Sure, it’s so much easier to just let them watch a cartoon while you get chores done, but have you ever noticed how sluggish your kids are after watching TV? It’s hard to get them motivated again afterwards!
RELATED: The effects of screen time on your kid’s brain (and how to avoid them)
That’s not to say your kids should never use a screen. BUT, you will likely make things easier on yourself in the long run if you save screen time for a designated time of day. This way, your kids will learn not to whine for it (because it’s simply not screen time yet), and they’ll have an easier time playing during other parts of the day.
While every family is different, it works best for us if my kids don’t watch anything until the end of the day (like while I’m making dinner). If I let them watch TV in the morning, they seem more cranky and less creative for the rest of the day.
Connect to your kids first
Often, your kids need attention before they can play by themselves well. So give it to them!
For example, my younger daughter loves to put puzzles together. If I start working a puzzle with her, my oldest often joins in too. After they get engaged, I can leave them to finish the puzzle on their own while I do dishes or whatever I have to do.
(For the record, my children have their own chores too. In fact, here’s the chore chart we use. But sometimes there’s stuff you need to get done without them).
Or most mornings, my kids come into our bedroom to cuddle for a little bit. If we let them cuddle for a while and then send them out to play, we can often snooze a little longer until it’s time to get up.
Have novel activities ready to go
When your kids get to the end of a game they started themselves and are becoming restless (usually mid- to late-morning for us), it helps to have an engaging, open-ended activity that you present to your kids.
I tell my kids that after their chores are done, they can see our surprise activity for the day. This way, they’re excited about it and motivated to get their chores done. Plus, if you just choose an activity for them and present it like it’s super exciting, kids will be really interested.
My suggestion for these activities is only allow as much mess as you’re willing to deal with. If you’re not okay with rice or sand all over your floor, skip the sensory bins. If you don’t want to wash paint off the kitchen table, maybe choose something else (of course, if mess doesn’t stress you out, go for those kinds of activities!).
Pinterest has a ton of cool activities for kids to do. My only problem is that a lot of them are either just in a quick list with no explanation, or they require a lot of effort to set-up, or they make a huge mess!
That’s why I curated Little Effort, Lots of Fun: Bonkers Easy Activities for Kids. This list of activities (that I made for myself and then liked so much that I wanted to share) includes pictures, a (short) supply list, and easy set-up instructions for each activity!
You can also have a particular toy available only for certain situations. For example, my friend suggests having a toy set that’s only brought out while you’re making a phone call. That way, instead of your child being upset that you’re busy, they’ll be excited that they get to play with the special toy. When the call is ended, the toy goes away for next time.
Choose open-ended toys
Electronic toys that sing a song or say a catch phrase whenever you press a button won’t entertain your child for long. You need to choose toys that encourage imagination and creativity if you want your kids to get lost in play.
RELATED: Open ended toys that encourage free play for kids
Blocks (more than one kind!), dolls and stuffed animals, and toy cars are all great choices to keep kids playing for a long time. If you’re looking for specific ideas on the best toys for kids, check out this post!
Remember, novelty is an important part of keeping kids interested in playing by themselves. If you rotate toys on a regular basis, your kids will be more interested in playing independently.
If you want to learn how to organize your kid’s toys for maximum play time, I have a great post for that!
RELATED: 5 steps to starting a toy rotation system your kids will love
Tip: If you don’t have time to do a full-blown toy rotation, just rotating a few toys will do! I often will just switch out the type of blocks I have out but leave everything else, and that will be enough to interest my kids.
Use toy strews
To keep toys fresh between rotations, use a toy strew system! Basically, just put toys in an interesting scenario – a half-built tower, small dolls surrounded by menacing dinosaurs – and leave it for your kids to find. Who knows what they’ll come up with!
And if you want more info on how to do toy strews, there’s a whole lot of information on it in this post.
Don’t be afraid of boredom
Even if you use all these tips, your kids will get bored sometimes. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s good for kids to be bored at times. That’s what really pushes them to be creative and come up with new ideas!
When your child comes to your complaining that she’s bored, don’t always use that as a cue to turn on the TV. Use that moment to connect if possible, or maybe suggest a chore!
In fact, if it’s a long day, I have no problem letting my kids get distracted while they’re doing some chores. For example, I’ll purposely tell my kids that I want them to clean up the play room when really I just need a break. They might clean a little, but it’s more likely that they’ll spend a lot of time playing instead. That’s fine, because they’re not whining about being bored anymore!
Don’t expect kids to play by themselves all the time
Obviously, you can’t expect your kids to play independently all the time. Not only is it best for them if you sometimes get down on the floor and play with them, it’s best for you too!
Make sure you take time to connect with your kids and play with them, whether it’s through coloring together, playing pretend, or chasing them around in a game of tag.
Conclusions on getting your kid to play independently
I hope these tips give you some good ideas! If you’re looking for more ways to engage your kids, make sure to check out Little Effort, Lots of Fun. These activities really excite my own kids and get them engaged in play, and I know they can work for you too!