practical parenting tips: how to encourage independent play

practical parenting tips: how to encourage independent play // bring joy

How to encourage independent play

Yesterday Salem (3) found some paint.

I was downstairs. She shouted from the top of the stairs.

“Mom! Come look, I painting.”

Oh no, this can’t be good, I thought.

I told her to bring her paints & her painting downstairs to the table. She had found Amalia’s (5), paint set. I made a split-second decision–take the paints away (they were her sister’s after all), or let her continue on her creative path. I decided most of the paints were dried up anyway, & she was so happy, so I opted for the later approach. I told her to set up shop at the kitchen table. She went to town for another 20 minutes–mixing, remixing, & getting very messy. I was proud.

Another thing happened where Salem showed her independence & I encouraged her.

While cleaning, I found a kid’s Clif bar stuffed under some of the kid’s things. Salem said she wanted it. I said fine. She ran off to the kitchen with her granola bar (still in the wrapper). I went to the kitchen to get a drink of water & saw that Salem had pulled up a chair to one of the countertops. She grabbed the kid scissors out of one of our pen/junk cups on the counter & was now cutting open the granola bar. Instead of reprimanding her for getting & using scissors, I said nothing. I was happy she figured out on her own how to find a solution to her problem. And a quick side note–instead of hiding scissors (impossible to do in a large household), we teach our kids from a very early age how to use scissors & their proper use & role, though this is not to say we haven’t had a few surprise haircuts!

How to encourage independent play in young children

On last week’s post about how to raise independent children, many of you left some great comments. I want to address one in particular.

Katie writes,

I really like this philosophy but I am really struggling to implement it. I have 4 and 2 year old boys. When I leave them alone (in another room) they always get into mischief and/or hurt each other. It’s gotten to the point that I have major anxiety when I know I can’t consciously be aware of them 100%. I have small moments where they will be happily playing for 15-30 minutes, but that’s about it. I’m not sure what to do! I definitely teach and encourage kind behavior – how do I transition from this to independent kids?

Fabulous question Katie!

Believe me, I know what it’s like to have crazy little boys who, left to their own devices can create some massive mayhem. It was only a few years ago that my boys were at this stage.

Here are a few things to remember, when striving to encourage independent play & thinking.

How to encourage independent play & a few things to keep in mind:

1. Messes will be made. That’s okay!
As long as they aren’t ruining expensive furniture or destroying things that matter, a little (or even a big mess) is okay. I let my kids get all the pillows & blankets in the house to make one big jumping pile. I let them build forts. I let them take out pots & pans to play with, I let them cut up dozens of pieces of paper into tiny pieces. Anytime they can come up with ways to play & entertain themselves on their own, barring anything dangerous or downright wasteful, I want to encourage it.

2. When kids are little (pre-K & younger), they shouldn’t be left alone (for the reasons you point out).
Encouraging independent play at this age may look something like this: letting them play in an adjacent room where you can still see &/or hear them (intervening as necessary to keep the peace); allowing them to play outside in a back or front yard where you can see them, but aren’t hovering over them or telling them how to play or what to do; taking them to a park & letting them explore by allowing them to go wherever they want (as long as it’s not somewhere where they could get hurt, like a parking lot)  while you trail behind to keep an eye, but you let them decide where to go. As your kids get older, the mischief creating will lessen, & it will become easier for them to be left semi-supervised for longer periods of time.

3. Create an environment that encourages play & fosters creativity. 
I find that keeping toys organized (not perfectly, but everything does have it’s place) & our home fairly clean, helps my kids know where they can find everything they need to entertain themselves. We have books in every room of the house. They know where to find crayons, pencils, paper, & glue to make crafts or drawings. I have books on how to draw for the older ones, coloring & activity books for the younger ones. We have puzzles of all levels, legos, cars, blocks, dolls. They have the tools, the safe environment, my job is to simply encourage them to find something to do.

4. It’s okay if kids get bored, in fact, it’s important that they do sometimes.
When kids get bored, it gives them an opportunity to exercise critical & creative thinking skills. They get the wheels a’churnin’, & they come up with ways to entertain themselves. My boys have created some fantastic games because of this.

If a child says: “I’m bored!” I reply with, “Oh, I’m sorry. That’s too bad. What are some things that you think you could do so that you’re not bored?”

I let them think it through for a bit. If they can’t come up with anything, I give them two options or ideas. If they continue with the whining, I give them a chore to do. Usually we don’t have to go that far.

5. Teach your child a love of reading.
If your child can learn to love books, they will never be bored, they will always be capable of entertaining themselves.

I’m finally really starting to enjoy the fruits of my labors with this. All four of my older kids (including my three year old Salem) can often be found reading by themselves or to each other. My oldest (8), can read chapter books  for hours (thank goodness for Harry Potter!) & the others, though not quite to that level, can sit quietly for large chunks of time reading. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Do you have any advice for Katie, anything to add to the list? 


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  1. Pingback: Importance of Independent Play + 5 Ways to Encourage It - Radiantly You

  2. Katie
    on April 25, 2014 at 9:45 pm said:

    Thank you Janae! I really enjoyed this post. First, it helped me see that I am doing alright for their ages. Point #2 is exactly what I have been doing, but I guess I just need to accept that there will be (sometimes a lot) of intervening with my boys simply because they are young. The rest of your points gave me plenty to work on. Now I feel like I have the tools to be successful instead of shooting in the dark on this one. Thanks again 🙂

    • Janae Wise
      on April 28, 2014 at 10:29 pm said:

      “but I guess I just need to accept that there will be (sometimes a lot) of intervening with my boys simply because they are young.”
      Yup! I’ve learned that they are still going to continue to rough house, but as they get older you can step back a lot more & let them figure it out between themselves (unless they are *actually* hurting each other).

      Seems like yesterday my boys were at that age, & now my oldest is in scouts, my other one is losing all of his baby teeth…I’m having a bittersweet time seeing them grow older.

  3. Lfwfv
    on April 25, 2014 at 3:04 pm said:

    Loved this post. At 18 months my little guy already has plenty of ideas for playing on his own. He is always nearby but I am not always free to play with him so he spends a lot of time playing with pots and pans, reorganizing Tupperware, making duplo creations, reading books to himself (well, looking at the pictures), and watching the animals and cars through our window. I think having a house that is safe for play and exploration is also key. We have made our entire main floor, where we spend most of our time, almost totally kid friendly. We have some locks on a few cupboards, outlet covers etc., but he is basically free to play freely with very little need for constant reprimands. I think this enables him to focus on whatever is on his “agenda” for the day and allows him to find his own fun and learning.

    • Janae Wise
      on April 28, 2014 at 10:26 pm said:

      Sounds magical. I think your little man is living in a little wonderland. He’s so lucky to have you!

      “He is always nearby but I am not always free to play with him so he spends a lot of time playing with pots and pans, reorganizing Tupperware, making duplo creations, reading books to himself (well, looking at the pictures), and watching the animals and cars through our window.”
      Perfect! The pots & pans, especially. Pots & pans, tupperware, those are the BEST kinds of toys for toddlers–I can’t believe your little guy is already 18 months. Time flies.

  4. Laurie
    on April 24, 2014 at 2:17 pm said:

    Although I don’t have any advice for Katie–no kids…but I could speak to encouraging independent play in house cats!–I wanted to add that my mom and dad raised my brother and I in the same way you are raising your children. One tiny difference, though: If we ever told our mom we were bored–“Mom, I’m so booooored!”–she’d find us something to do: raking leaves, picking up sticks in the yard, moving piles of dirt (?), etc. Needless to say, we learned early on to ALWAYS find ourselves something to do…Mom: “Are you kids bored?” Us: “NO! NO! Nobody’s bored, move along, move along, nobody to entertain over here.”

  5. April
    on April 24, 2014 at 9:20 am said:

    Great post! I think the first step to independent play is….let them play independently! I know a lot of moms who are too afraid to step back b/c of messes or getting hurt or into trouble. It’s like any new milestone in a kids’ life. The parents tend to be more afraid of it than the kids and then once it happens we realize it wasn’t so bad. Fear can keep us from letting our kids play independently but once we do we realize how good it is for everyone. My goal this summer is to have the kids playing outside, alone (we have a HUGE fenced back yard) for at least 2-3 hours every day. It’s going to mean a lot of “I’m bored!” but I’m really starting to see the importance of letting them be bored and figure it out themselves.

    • Tia
      on April 28, 2014 at 12:54 pm said:

      I love this comment! Often it’s our mommy fear that holds our kids back. I’ve learned with my 21mo old that he’s actually really capable, and I need to give him more credit.

      • Janae Wise
        on April 28, 2014 at 10:00 pm said:

        Hi Tia!

        “I’ve learned with my 21mo old that he’s actually really capable, and I need to give him more credit.”

        Absolutely. Our little ones are smart. We do them a great disservice by not speaking to them like they are intelligent, creative, thinking little people.

  6. Susan
    on April 24, 2014 at 8:43 am said:

    I was actually wondering if you were interested in sharing your daily routine with your baby. I’m a first time mom with a 2 month old and am always curious about different routines!