Can Three Year Olds Play by Themselves?

Written By: Psychologist Natasha Tanic

Three year olds are becoming more independent and able to establish and maintain positive relationships with others.

Their new social and emotional skills allow preschoolers to recognize better and understand their own and other people’s feelings.

They are also getting better at managing strong emotions and expressing them verbally.

Three year old children begin to develop greater self-control. Your preschooler is becoming more self-confident.

However, a three year old’s feelings can get easily hurt, and your child may need a lot of physical attention to feel secure, accepted, and supported.

In terms of your three year old’s development, they’re now gaining social skills essential for interaction and communication with others.

You may notice that your child enjoys playing with other kids and shows affection for his friends. They like playing pretend games with peers and adults and begin to understand the importance of turn-taking and cooperation.

Three year olds are also beginning to grasp the idea of “mine” and “yours”, so they might start fighting over toys with friends and have difficulties sharing their belongings.

Fighting over a toy is normal and developmentally appropriate, though.

Young children still don’t understand that other people have viewpoints different than their own.

This is a normal part of your child’s development, known as egocentric thinking or egocentrism.

Why Independent Play Matters

Play engages a child’s senses and sparks their imagination.

Creativity boosts language development and improves motor skills. It nurtures brain development, promotes new neural connections, and enhances the brain’s plasticity and flexibility.

Independent play promotes problem-solving skills and helps children anticipate and predict outcomes.

It also helps them explore cause and effect relations, learn positive ways to communicate their feelings and needs, and master their cooperation and communication skills.

Play and educational toys encourage three year olds to follow their interests and express themselves freely.

To foster healthy development, identify your little one’s interests and emerging skills and provide toys and play opportunities based upon them.

How To Get Your Three Year Old to Play Independently

When your child was an infant, you played with him and entertained him most of the time.

As he grew into a toddler and preschooler, he started to gain more independence and self-awareness, realizing that he is separate from you and other people.

Most three year olds don’t like to play on their own.

Even when engaging with toys they love, such as LEGO, blocks, or cars, your child may want to show you his progress from time to time, or look to you for constant interaction.

Nevertheless, his growing independence allows you to encourage him to learn how to play by himself.

Teaching your preschooler to play independently can help him build essential cognitive, social and emotional, and motor skills.

Independent play teaches kids problem-solving, creativity, imagination, responsibility, emotional expression, and more.

Here are some strategies to get your three year old to play alone.

Encourage Independence Gradually

Gradually teach your child to play independently, leaving her herself for a few minutes.

Of course, always let your little one know that you will be leaving her for a few moments as sneaking out of the room can make your child clingy or even create separation anxiety.

To boost your child’s independence, provide an environment in which she will feel safe and free to explore.

Ensure the play area is secure, increase your absence gradually, and keep supervising her play from a distance to ensure safety and ease.

Provide Age-Appropriate Toys

Preschoolers use toys for their intended purpose because they are beginning to understand how things work.

But they also use toys in endlessly imaginative ways that boost their creativity, language, and social-emotional skills.

Preschoolers love pretend-play. However, your preschooler will most likely expect you to join her in her play.

Don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy a pretend-tea party with your little one from time to time, but encourage independent play whenever possible.

Provide pretend-play toys and props such as doctor’s kits, pretend-food, animals, dolls and a dollhouse, hats, gloves, dresses, etc.

During a preschool stage of development, your child’s play becomes more physical, providing a variety of fine and gross-motor toys and activities.

Offer toys and outdoor equipment that encourage running, jumping, and climbing to promote your preschooler’s physical development.

Manipulative toys will help your three-year-old develop small muscles, hand-eye coordination, and critical thinking.

Provide toys like wooden blocks, nesting cups, toys with buttons and zippers, crayons, markers, clay, chalks, puzzles, blocks, and construction sets.

Manipulative toys encourage creativity and problem-solving but also boost language, cooperation, and self-esteem.

Plan Playdates

At the age of three, most children show an increasing interest in the company of other children.

They enjoy playing with other kids, so playdates with friends are an excellent opportunity to encourage free and independent play.

Playdates with friends promote qualities such as independence, responsibility, empathy, cooperation, and turn-taking.

Playing with other kids can help your child understand different standpoints, develop initiative, and practice critical thinking.

Also, interaction with other children promotes self-regulation, fuels imagination, boost your three year old’s language, and helps him develop patience.

Set the Boundaries

In order to quit a job as your three year old’s entertainer, it help if you set some boundaries by confidently letting your child know that you need to get your work done and that you will be back soon.

Set a routine schedule for independent play to make transitions and separation easier.

Suggest open-ended toys and activities and praise your child’s independence. Acknowledge your child’s needs and feelings and offer a choice, if possible.

For example, invite your child to help you prepare dinner or suggest playing together before sleep time.


To help your child feel safe, supported, and encouraged to gain independence, get him to play alone while closely monitoring.

Playing alone helps kids learn to focus, be creative, and feel content by themselves.

Independent play in a safe learning environment gives your child an excellent opportunity to practice their cognitive, language, social, and motor skills needed for future school and life success.

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