How to teach play skills & What to do when a child can’t entertain themselves

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One of the reasons children struggle to entertain themselves is because they don’t have the play skills they need. Play is not just a way for your child to have fun, but it is how children integrate ideas and concepts into their minds. Playing is the work of childhood. 

Can you give a child too much attention?

There is no such thing as too much affection or care, but solving all your child’s problems and ensuring they are never bored can cause more harm than good. 

Your child needs opportunities to overcome their struggles on their own. One of the hardest things you can do is watch your child struggle with something and not jump in and solve it. Particularly if you are used to helping your child with everything. 

While you shouldn’t just sit back and let your child struggle to the point of tears, allow them to try their ideas. 

At first, they may expect you to solve their problems for them.  This problem can be solved by pretending to be equally stumped by the task and asking for ideas.

 At what age should a child be able to entertain themselves?

Even at 6 months old, children are capable of entertaining themselves, but it is for periods of 5 minutes or so. As children grow so does their ability to entertain themselves as long as they are given opportunities for solo play. 

Toddlers who have always been given the opportunity to play solo can entertain themselves for upwards of 30 minutes. 

But that comes with practice. If your child is used to you playing with them all the time, start slowly by just being in the same room or sitting quietly by them while they play. 

Is it okay for a child to play alone?

You can let your child play alone without feeling guilty. Solo play helps them develop independence and problem-solving skills. 

While they are playing alone, that doesn’t mean they have to be in a completely separate room from you. You can still share the space while they play.

How to let go of the Mom guilt!

Mom guilt is a very real feeling. But there is nothing wrong with letting your child play independently. 

You are not neglecting them, you are allowing them to do what children across history have done, play independently. 

Think of all the benefits you are giving your child by allowing them to play solo. They will know how to be independent thinkers who can work through problems.  

It also helps them develop a sense of self, which can help them choose to make the right choices when everyone else is making wrong ones because they aren’t afraid to do their own thing. 

We have painted this world where a mother has to be all the things, she needs to be a good and loving wife, a hard, dedicated worker, a loving and devoted mother. And somewhere along the way, we have started equating a good mother with a child who is never bored and is always happy and entertained.  It is just not realistic.  

Remind yourself of the benefits of solo play and that you are a loving, caring mother who is always trying to make the best decision to let your child grow into a strong, independent, caring individual. There is not a single reason to have a shred of mom guilt about your child playing by themselves. 

How do you teach a child to entertain themselves? Introduce Independent Play!

So what is the magic formula that gets a child from needing your eyes and approval on every minute of their day to a child who can entertain themselves while you do what you need to do? Time, patience, and independent play. 

Why is my child always bored?

A child can be surrounded by things to entertain them and still be saying they are bored. Why is that? 

For parents, we look around and think “You have a million things to play with, how can you be bored?” 

We need to understand what a child means when they are saying they are bored.  

Sometimes a child is saying they are bored because they need more activity and physical movement. Taking some time for them to play outside or go on a walk can instantly cure that boredom. 

For other kids, they are seeking a sense of connection. If you have been extra busy, they may just be asking to spend some time with you. 

But most often, the reality is most kids today haven’t had to deal with boredom. Children don’t have that often to just be alone with their thoughts and come up with ideas on their own. 

Between schedules that are overflowing with playdates and activities and classes and the abundance of screens and screen time, kids just haven’t had the practice at being bored. 

Being bored can be uncomfortable but learning how to overcome boredom and do something constructive and active with their time can lead to better focus and longer attention span.

Why free play is important?

Free play is essential for not only a child’s cognitive development but also their physical development. 

Remember how I said that play is the work of childhood?  Play is how children practice things they have learned academically, socially, and physically. 

Children learn to problem-solve when they come to an obstacle during solo play and have to figure out the solution on their own. 

They also learn risk management skills through free play. For example, at a playground, there are some stepping stones, but they are spread pretty far apart. Your child stands there pretending the ground is lava, can she stretch her leg far enough to reach this stone or should she jump to that stone. 

Is she in any actual danger? No. 

But her brain is learning to calculate which choice is riskier.  That turns into her being able to critically think about a situation as a teen and make a mental calculation of what the best choice is. 

The more times she gets to practice this kind of risk management with free play, the better she will be at making decisions through life. 

Free play is an extremely important part of a child’s cognitive development. 

Provide The CORRECT Toys for Self-Entertainment

Another important part of introducing self-entertainment is the child having the correct kinds of toys that lend to more active play and less passive play. 

So how can you tell what the correct toy is? The more simple the toy, the more active the play. 

A simple set of Lego bricks or Duplo bricks means that a majority of the entertainment value comes from within the child. With their imagination and hard work, a child can take a box of Legos and create a 4 story hospital with multiple rooms, or a fantastical machine that your child tells you turns vegetables into ice cream. 

Whereas electronic toys, your child is more passive with the play. They don’t have to imagine things for the toy to say, because it can talk for itself. The toy is entertaining the child, not the child entertaining himself. They don’t have to think too much or even use their imagination with the toy. 

The fewer the toys, the better

Have you ever looked around your child’s room when they say they are bored and wonder how they can possibly be bored surrounded by all these toys? 

Too many choices can lead to decision fatigue and your child just shutting down. The choices are overwhelming and stressful. 

And I understand, every holiday and birthday brings an onslaught of new toys from loving friends and relatives that mean well.  

I am not saying you have to give all your child’s toys away and leave them with just sticks and rocks. What I am saying is to decide whether you want to pair down their toys or you want to create a toy rotation. 

We have done a toy rotation in the past. I put a majority of my kids’ toys in boxes and stored them away, leaving several options for them to play with but not an overwhelming amount. 

An unintended side effect of this was my children having fewer toys to play with meant their play areas were really easy to clean up.   

At regular intervals, I would bring out a box of toys I had stored and have my kids go “toy shopping.”  And all those old toys that they had been bored with, were like brand new toys. And the toys they had been playing with could go up until the next toy shopping time. 

It also allowed me to go through the toys that were stored away and pair them down without my children getting upset. 

Benefits of Solo Play: Once you go Independent play you never go back

Not only does solo play give parents a break, but it hosts a long list of benefits for children too. 

Some benefits of solo play are: 

  • Emotional Regulation as children have time to decompress
  • Independence
  • Self-Confidence
  • Improved Problem Solving Skills 
  • Improved Risk Management 
  • Helps them integrate things they are learning about 
  • Learn healthy ways to deal with boredom

What is Independent play exactly?

Independent play is when your child has time to play by themselves. It can include time for them to make art, build with legos or play with their toys.  

Screen time isn’t independent playtime because the entertainment value is not coming from within the child like it does when they play with legos, make art and play with their toys. It doesn’t build the same skill set. 

How does independent play benefit a child?

Independent play benefits many areas of a child’s development.  Children learn to decompress and have time to recuperate from all the stimulation that the world has to offer.  They can do this by exploring their space at their own pace and make choices on what to do or play with by themselves.

When children play alone they start to develop a sense of independence. They learn that they can do things on their own and grow in their self-confidence as they solve their problems.  They start becoming more self-reliant.  

While they are playing, they start learning how to take educated risks by trying things. 

They are also learning healthy ways to deal with boredom that aren’t endless screens.  

What Independent play means for the parent and how it can help relieve stress

Independent play also helps parents and can lower the overall stress of the family.  Often parents worry about if their child is learning enough and if they are socialized enough, leading to over-packed schedules and overstressed parents. 

Once your child learns how to play independently, there is less pressure on parents to entertain their child 24/7 and the parents start getting more breaks and downtime for themselves.  

When you need to do something that you cannot give your child your full attention, they can play on their own.  It’s life-changing.

What are open-ended toys and why they’re all you need!

Open-ended toys are toys that do not have a defined way to play with them. Your child can play in many different ways with the same toy.  Open-end toys are not electronic and are usually made of sustainable materials like wood, bamboo, and cotton, but they don’t have to be. You can start with what you have and add things over time. 

Open-ended toys and activities for infants

Mushie Stacking Cups: These are hands down have been all of my kids’ favorite toys as babies.  They first discovered them at a grandparent’s house and I wound up ordering a set before we even left. 

My kids have stacked them inside of one another but soon found out they could make towers and walls with them by turning them upside down.  Because I loved how portable and entertaining they are,  I purchased a set for our diaper bag and a set for home. 

The Haba Rainmaker is my magic wand to soothe cranky babies. Every time I have pulled it out with a fussy baby, they settle down and their eyes watch in amazement as the balls race down. 

The Haba Rainbow Fabric Ball is another great option. It’s so soft and the wedge shape to the petals of the ball makes it so easy for even young babies to try to grasp.   

You can find all my favorite open-ended toys for infants in this gift guide. 

Open-ended toys and activities for Toddlers & Preschoolers

Clicques Rainbow Dolls-  I love these brightly colored peg style dolls. My kids love playing with these so much sometimes for little families in a dollhouse, superheroes, students in the pretend mini school my kids run, and even monster truck drivers. 

Silks- these gorgeous colored silks are perfect for all kinds of play and my elementary age kids play with these just as much.  My littles use them for baby blankets, headscarves to play grandmas, and to show off their magic reveals. My older kids use these almost like dancer ribbons most often but sometimes they help build forts or pretend slings for fake injuries. 

 WAYTOPLAY Roadways are these super cool flexible roads that can be made in many different configurations, and a must-have if you have a little gearhead in your house that can’t get enough cars and monster trucks. 

For my full list of Open-ended toys for toddlers and preschoolers then check out this gift guide of all my tried and true toys. 

Open-ended toys and activities for elementary-aged children

Magnatile- By far the most popular toy with elementary-aged kids is Magnatiles and Magnetic blocks. Hours can be spent building 3 shapes and rooms. And to be completely honest the first time I saw magnatiles I couldn’t quit playing with them, my kids had moved on to playing tea time, and I was still building the best castle ever.  Magnatiles are so much fun and now you can find magnetic blocks and even magnetic wooden dolls like the Clicques. 

Wobbel Balance Board- this one has so many benefits and is so fun and challenging. Not only is this great for gross motor skill development, but I have seen it turned into a car bridge, a tunnel, and even a seesaw. 

Wooden Instruments- If you don’t mind a little noise, this set of wooden instruments has such great variety that every time your kid explores this set, they will find new ways to make music. 

Things to avoid when teaching your child to play by themselves

Teaching your children to play independently is possibly going to be more difficult on you than it is on them. 

As parents, it’s easy to see ourselves as our child’s savior, and letting our children struggle can feel unnatural and even stressful for us.  

The 3 things you want to avoid while teaching your child to play by themselves are don’t interrupt them, don’t rescue them, and don’t hover over them. 

Don’t interrupt them

Don’t interrupt your child as they work through starting to play independently. 

I found it hardest to not interrupt when I saw my toddler trying something that I didn’t think would work.  Trial and error is part of them playing independently. 

Just take a few deep breaths when you want to interrupt and remind yourself that they are having fun and do not need help or advice. 

Don’t jump to action every time they ask 

Our little loves are so used to saying “Mommy help me!” that when they start playing independently, they will probably say it a lot. You can be caring and still encourage them to figure it out themselves. 

Things to say when your child asks for help: 

  • In what way have you tried to do this? 
  • What do you think? 
  • Oh, I don’t know, can you help me figure it out? 
  • Okay, I will help you in a few minutes, as soon as I go do this. (Most of the time they will figure it out before you get back) 

Watch from afar, don’t get in the way!

Putting some distance between you and your little one makes it easier for them to focus on playing and will make it easier for you to let them explore.  You can stay in the same room or you can go to an adjacent room. 

Don’t feel guilty, you can always peek in on them without drawing their attention. 

Note: Screentime doesn’t count as solo play…

Just a reminder that screen time is not the same as independent solo play because screen time does not allow your child to build the skills independent play does.  You can check out my in-depth article about screen time here. 

The Bottom Line: You are not responsible for keeping your child entertained. You can effectively teach your child to entertain themselves and create a happier, healthier home.

Let go of the mom guilt that says you must keep your child entertained at all times. You can provide your child a safe place to explore and play independently that helps them to grow in their physical skills and cognitive skills.   And that independent play can lead to a less stressful home and a much happier family. 

Interested in getting your little one to play independently?

Check out my Purposeful Playspace e-course to learn how to create a space for your children that invites them to playin ways that are more engaging, purposeful and independent.

Want more information about how play impacts your child’s development?

Check out my e-book: Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood

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