How to get a toddler to play independently

Ah, the toddler stage. Not so long ago your little peanut was just hanging out, willingly wherever you set him or her. Now… not so much.

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Gone are the days of stationary play. Now, it’s off to the races to get into anything and everything ALL DAY LONG. It’s exhausting!

Which is probably why you’re here right? You’re going crazy and just want your toddler to play independently for even just five, uninterrupted minutes!

Don’t worry I got you! 

But, first, we need to look at a few things to really understand what play is for a child.

The 3 Major Types of play in child development

‘Play’ can mean many things,  but to help break it down some experts have divided it into three categories- social, independent, and guided play.

Each category has its own benefits, but just like everything in life you can have too much or too little. Finding balance in your toddlers routine and setting them up for success requires that they learn each type of play.

What is social play in child development? 

Social play is exactly what it sounds like, children playing with one another in a social setting (or an adult plays with a child). Social play is usually structured, like throwing a ball, playing house, or teacher. There are certain “how-tos” and “rules” to follow. For example, to throw and catch a ball you have to do it in a specific way to be successful.

What is Independent play?

For a toddler to play independently, they have to be left to their own devices. While it’s “easy” to learn social skills for most toddlers it’s 10x harder for them to learn to be self-reliant. Encouraging your toddler to play independently helps them learn many things like problem-solving, to accept failure, and really tune into their imagination and creativity without being set with any “rules” on how they “should” be playing or what they “should” be doing.

What is Guided play?

When a child engages in guided play they are using props setup by adults that encourage a specific outcome. This can be something as simple as making sugar cookies or elaborate as building a robot. Obviously you aren’t going to be building a robot with your toddler but if you have ever set out finger pants with the end goal being to create a handprint wreath then you’ve engaged your child in independent play.

What are the benefits of play-based learning

Play is invaluable when it comes to child development; here are several tangible benefits:

  • influential in healthy brain development
  • critical part of fine motor and gross motor development
  • necessary for learning to negotiate and solve disagreements
  • helps children discovering new interests
  • essential for both expressive and receptive language development
  • crucial for social-emotional learning

Encouraging independent play is important! The value of solo play specifically is rooted in skills of independence and imagination. A child playing in a self-directed way feels competent and capable.

They then take this confidence through their teenage years and into adulthood. 

When Can I Begin Easing My Child Towards Independent Play?

Short answer: sooner than you think! 

It’s important, first and foremost, to consider the age and developmental stage of your child. Older children can be expected to play alone for longer periods of time than younger children. A six-month-old child, for example, may be able to play independently for about five minutes, while a one-year-old might play for fifteen minutes, and a toddler for 30. . 

These times refer to children who’ve been ‘trained’ for independent play. If you haven't been teaching your child to play independently from infancy and you tell your toddler one day to ‘go play’ they likely aren’t going to do it.

How to encourage independent play in toddlers

There are several variables to consider when guiding your child towards independent play, including environment, toys, routine and monitoring. 

Step One: Check Your Environment

To encourage independent play, the environment will be a safe space for children to explore. This area will not include breakable chachkies or knick-knacks. It won’t have lamp cords to pull on pointy-cornered glass tables. It’s difficult to encourage independent play when a parent is hovering and constantly telling the child ‘no’. 

The bedroom, living room, family room and even kitchen can be suitable play spaces as long as safety comes first. Think of all those pots and pans in the kitchen just waiting for little hands!

Will I Need to Buy All New Toys for My Toddler?

Not only are fancy toys unnecessary for independent play, they’re actually detrimental to the whole process. Open-ended toys breed success in independent play. Wooden blocks, balls, Legos, magnets, and more are good examples of open-ended toys.

Open-ended-toys can be used in many different ways. A block can be stacked as part of a building, or it can be used like a cell phone or a microphone. There’s no ‘wrong’ way to use a block (as long as you’re being safe). 

When considering whether a toy is suited for independent play, consider how your child might use it.  If there is only one way to use the toy (an electronic keyboard, for example), save it for a session of guided play.

Although one might say an iPad or smartphone has many uses, and is therefore suitable, electronics are not appropriate for independent play. Electronic devices may encourage boredom in children, as they are an ongoing source of stimulation. 

When children become accustomed to blinking lights and lots of activity, it can make it difficult for them to transition to coloring or playing with blocks.

Step Two: Time IN

What is ‘Time In’? It is intentional time spent playing with your child with no distractions. Put away your cell phone or device and set a timer based on the age of your child. For an infant, start with five minutes, for toddlers go for 10-15 and if your child is five years old, set the timer for about twenty minutes.  

Tell your  child, “I’m yours for ten minutes – what should we do?” Then simply follow their lead. Don’t correct, coach or teach. Go with their ideas, and be present.

When the time is up, tell them what fun you had, and how you need to go do your work now.

When using this routine with an infant or toddler, you must stay in the same room. That being said, as your child is playing independently, be sure to busy yourself with another task. It’s not ‘independent play’ if you’re still involved.

If you have older children, say 5 years old after your time is up tell them you’ll be back a little later. Then, twenty or thirty minutes later, check on them. You may need to stay in the same room initially.’ if you’re still involved.

Encouraging Your Toddler to Play Independently Relies on a Play Routine

Like anything you teach your child, independent play must be practiced over time. Don’t expect to try it once and have your child be an expert right out of the gate. 

Additionally, don’t expect a three-year-old to acclimate to this practice immediately. Independent play is a quicker success story the earlier you begin the routine.


You will be observing and checking on your child during independent play. What are you looking for exactly? Flow is the ultimate goal – that state of mind where you’re so involved in something that you forget yourself. 

Flow is a wonderfully gratifying state of mind for all ages, and it’s certainly possible for a preschooler to attain. 

Final Thoughts on Toddler Independent Play

Independent play is a worthwhile goal for you and your family. It may take a while to become comfortable in this routine, and there will undoubtedly be stops and starts along the way.

Give yourself, and your child, lots of grace along the way, and keep in mind that the ability to be alone and entertain one’s self is a lifelong skill. Most of all, enjoy the journey!

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