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by Katrina Oliver
For many children, getting them to take their first steps towards independent play can feel like pulling teeth.
While parents wait eagerly for the day that their little one can be happy for a few moments without adult attention, the benefits of independent play go far beyond that.
Independent play is necessary for young children to learn appropriate emotional regulation and social awareness skills.
Toddlers who have been used to having a parent or friend within arm’s reach to interact with can have a hard time learning how to amuse themselves and start to find ways to create fun, enriching experiences on their own.
Parents can assist their child in developing this skill by encouraging them to spend more time playing independently.
While the path can be frustrating, it’s easy to get started!
Offer plenty of together time
A child who struggles to get attention is going to have a hard time when it’s entirely taken away.
As you start to have your child play independently more, make sure they still have lots of focused “together” time where you play with and engage your child directly and give them lots of positive loving attention.
This can create a secure attachment so when you do leave, they still feel secure that you will soon be back to spend quality time with them.
Create a YES space
To make sure your child plays independently, designate a place in your house as a Yes Space.
A Yes Space is an area where children can play freely, without having to worry about restrictions or off-limits areas – where they never hear “no”!
This means primarily having any safety hazards completely protected for your children, such as outlets being covered and pieces of furniture that aren’t safe for them to be near unsupervised being removed.
In a Yes Space…
…all the toys and learning materials are at a height and stored in such a way that the child can access anything they might want to play with without assistance.
They can move about freely and play how they want without worrying about having to second guess any of their ideas.
This kind of freedom of choice and security can help children feel capable of playing alone without needing an adult nearby to bolster their confidence.
Give them something fun
Being happy playing independently has a lot to do with being happy with what you’re playing!
Having something highly interesting to your child is going to make it much easier for them to be comfortable playing without a partner.
As you begin to foster this skill, reorganize and restock your child’s play space to have a few new playing experiences and a new layout.
The added novelty of a powered up playroom will provide plenty of distraction for them to spend more time playing independently.
Your child will not overnight go from being incapable of playing alone to being able to be amused alone for an hour.
Start with small increments of time during which they can play independently.
You can calmly explain to them that you’re going to do something else and step out of the room or away from the space momentarily.
Some children are going to take this very well, at least for a short time, and will find something in their play area for entertainment.
If your child is upset by your leaving, then still step away for a short amount of time but return to play with them after the amount of time you had originally said.
Don’t force independent play
Remember that it’s going to take some time for your child to learn to play independently.
Their first few tries may be upsetting for them, and it may be frustrating for that skill to not come quickly.
It’s completely normal for children to start crying or fussing when their parents are farther away from them than they are used to.
If your child is resistant to playing independently, offer plenty of reassurance and gentleness.
It will take time for them to build the trust that they can happily be away from your side without worry.
IT may take many tries, but each time you practice with them will build up that trust one piece at a time.
Getting your child to learn to play independently can at times feel like a struggle, but at the end of the process you will be able to help your child foster their own social emotional growth – and give yourself some personal space! – by making them capable of finding their own fun all on their own!