Some Tips to Encourage Independent Play

Following on from my last post, I thought I would share with you a response I gave to someone who contacted me about some tips to encourage her child to play independently.

The little girl in question was around 2 years old, a lover of dinosaurs and a confident, secure child, except when she was at home with mum. Her mum was doing all the right things. She was very in-tune with her daughter's interests, took her to the library, rotated her toys and had always encouraged her to play for periods of time on her own. But lately she had been particularly clingy and was wanting mum to play with her ALL THE TIME!

Here is what I suggested (with a few little tweaks). I've also changed names, because in these times of extreme privacy it seems like the right thing to do.

Hi Sally,
It's pretty normal for Bella to enjoy playing more with you than with herself at her age. From what you've told me, it sounds like she is really starting to enjoy imaginative play and when she plays with you, the stories and characters you make up are probably quite creative and involved. Then when it comes to playing by herself, she may just be having a little trouble keeping herself amused with her own imagination and it's easier if mum does it! This is perfectly normal because her imagination is only just starting to develop. There are lots of things you can do to help her along.

Firstly, don't feel guilty about saying 'no' to her. Teaching her to play independently is a wonderful skill to learn. You're helping her to develop her inner dialogue, her imagination and creativity as well as the confidence to feel comfortable with her own company. Not to mention the self-esteem that comes with working things out and accomplishing things independently. These are great gifts.

The hard part is weaning her off of playing with you. A nice way to go about it is to use a timer. You can say something along the lines of "Mummy has some jobs to do, but I'm going to put this timer on (use the oven timer or a wind up one if you have it), and when the timer goes off, it's going to be Mummy and Bella time and we can do something together".

Then set the timer and go about some jobs as best as you can until the timer goes off.
It's best to ignore resistance as much as you can and just keep reassuring her you will play when the timer goes. It's probably best to set the timer for ten or twenty minutes to start with (whatever you feel she's ready for), so she gets the hang of how it works, then gradually make the time longer and longer. Don't worry too much if she doesn't play at first while she's waiting, she will eventually go and play once she realises you mean business and she gets bored. You could set up a little play scene with her dinosaurs close by and suggest she play there while she waits for you.

For the time being, I would perhaps avoid playing pretend games with her when the timer goes off and use your time together to do a puzzle or play a simple board game. That way, she will associate these things with time spent with you, rather than the imaginative games. It makes pretend play games her domain, which will encourage her to develop these games on her own, becoming less reliant on you.

The other thing you can work on is helping her to develop her imaginative play stories. I do this a lot with my kids. When you are in the kitchen or the family room and catch her involved in her dinosaur play for example, it's great to ask her questions about what is going on to help her develop the story. This also helps to reassure her that you are close by and interested in what she is doing. For example things like "How are the dinosaurs today?" "What's the orange one up to over there", "He sounds cross, what's happened?", "Is she having a swim in the water?". Questions and comments that observe the play Bella is involved in and encourage her to develop the story more on her own.

Another thing I would suggest is perhaps seeing how Bella goes having her toys rotated less frequently. At her age, she will probably enjoy going back to the same toys over and over again. I have found with both of my kids that once they got to around 2, they would play with "pretend play" toys every day and it would be the same ones over and over again.

Children love to re-visit things they've done, pick up where they've left off and recall stories they've made up before. It's a really important part of their brain development. Toys that are great to leave out all the time are basically ones that have unlimited uses - things like plastic animals and dinosaurs, cars, trains, babies and baby accessories, dress-ups and "home corner" play things. You'll know when she is getting bored with these things because her play will stop being as constructive and that's when it's a good time to find new things to do by rotating toys or adding new props.

I hope these tips are helpful. You sound like a switched on mum, very in tune with her little girl and from what you've told me, it sounds like you have a great relationship. As I mentioned earlier, playing independently and enjoying your own company is a wonderful thing to learn and I'm sure it will be only a matter of time before Bella is spending hours playing on her own and you're seeking her out to find out what she's up to. I'd love to hear how you go.

Kind Regards

I've had some feedback from 'Sally' and apparently, after some persistence and a few months of sticking to these tips, 'Bella' is again enjoying busy, independent play. Hurray for everyone!


  1. Great tips Belinda. Wish I had read this when Miss Mimi was two :)

  2. I use a timer with my kids. It works especially well for my preschooler who would love for me to play all day with him. He isn't always happy when the time goes off, but he knows that is the end.

  3. Excellent tips - just what I needed to hear. Even though I've been putting in lots of effort to make play exciting and encourage independent play we have not made any progress. I will be putting your tips into action straight away. I realise that I've been rotating toys to frequently. Thanks again.