It’s ok to encourage independent play for toddlers: here’s how we do it

independent play rock painting

In many cultures, teaching toddlers independent play is actually pretty common. Allowing kids to find ways to play by themselves can be healthy for them (with your help of course – you’re not totally off the hook). When we first became parents, we were introduced to a laundry list of rules we very incorrectly believed we had to follow. Most of them turned out to be total unfounded – and one of these, the idea that as parents we need to entertain the kids every second of the day. It’s a lot of pressure. And it’s kind of BS.

entertain kids with water table

Why you shouldn’t give in to the pressure to entertain kids constantly

Honestly, it took 2 kids (a 4 year old and a 1 year old) and a pandemic for us to come to the realization that it’s ok to let the kids be bored. And we’re still not perfect at it.

We’ve been at home with the kids for 3+ months. And as an airline family, it’s a huge change for us. We knew it would be difficult finding ways to entertain the kids at home, all day every day. But after the first week or two, our mindset changed. We’re now ok teaching the kids to play independently a little each day.

We always saw pictures and videos of kids on social media just off playing by themselves and were SO jealous. Until we realized, it’s because they grew up being allowed to be bored every once in awhile.

So our take is this:

  • We always make time for play, but it doesn’t have to be a Pinterest homemade slime activity that takes 35 ingredients. Sometimes, it’s just sitting on the floor playing catch – in the house.
  • That’s not to say Pinterest and blog activities aren’t great and super fun, because a lot of them are. Just that we don’t put pressure on ourselves to have all these activities planned and ready to go to entertain the kids everyday.
  • We also encourage self play periods throughout the day. Usually we tell our 4 year old she has a half hour or an hour to play independently (hello Alexa timers). She was very resistant at first, but slowly she’s been getting into discovering things on her own.
  • When one of the kids gets a little impatient and irritable because they either want picked up or someone to play with, we let them continue on their own for awhile and normally they figure out their own boredom and find something they like to play with.

Why independent play for toddlers is ok – and the benefits

Like we said, normally they figure out a way to entertain themselves. You just have to give them the chance. It may sound counterintuitive, but we’ve actually learned boredom is healthy for kids.

Independent play encourages creativity

Kids needs to figure out how to entertain themselves. And to be clear, we’re not talking sit them down with an iPad here (though there are some cool educational activities on the iPad and we’ve always allowed a set amount of screen time). But this is taking a kid that may be used to organized activities in a daycare or school setting, and telling them their options are (for the most part) limitless.

We have a craft drawer that the kids can reach to get their own art supplies. Most of it is pretty basic – crayons, construction paper, stickers, glue stick, etc. BUT one of our newest additions, rock painting markers, has been a huge hit. Show them how to use them once and they’ll be an easy way for them to hunt for rocks and then get creative painting them.

Independent play teaches them to make their own decisions

A lot of their lives are determined for them: eat breakfast, get dressed, brush your teeth. So it’s good for them to have open-ended time to make their own choices. Protip here: our kiddos get frustrated if you just plop them in the room and leave them to their own devices.

It can be helpful to give them a few ideas to get their creative juices flowing. Sometimes we’ll say something like “I’m really hungry. Could you cook me something in your play house.” And she’ll go right to this little playhouse she has outside and think of something creative she can “cook” with mud and sticks and water (mud soup, anyone?). Another idea – we turned our old play kitchen into a mud kitchen and put it outside. They LOVE pretend play outdoors where they can use nature to cook.

Independent play empowers them with confidence

As a parent, I’ll be the first to raise my hand and admit, when you see your child struggling with a task – they can’t string the fruit loops on their necklace – it can be hard to not step in and do it for them. We know we need to let them try and sometimes fail to teach them resiliency and problem solving. But still, sometimes it’s hard. With self play, that goes out the window and your kids are encouraged to figure out how to complete tasks on their own. It’s great. Though it always takes constant self discipline on our part to not always step in. Like all things parenting, encouraging independent play for your toddlers is no different. You constantly check yourself and then stand back to admire the determination of your young go getter.

Let the guilty feelings go

As people who are on social media our fair share, the hardest part is not buying into the idea that in order to be a successful parent, you have to come up with all these creative projects and keep your kids completely entertained every minute of the day. And it’s a lie if we’re being honest with you. Don’t feel guilty if you aren’t making coffee filter butterflies and elephant toothpaste. Though if you want to that’s cool too! But don’t force it.

And plan on having “no plans” throughout the week. Give them a jumping off point and set them loose. And if all else fails, the prompt we like to use to encourage independent play for our toddlers is “It’s a nice day for a birthday party. Can you plan a birthday party for one of your stuffed animals?” Birthday parties + kids = gold.

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