Those of you, who read my post called Teaching Kids to Play Independently, already know that independent play is something we started early on in our son’s life.
While I cannot remember off the top of my head, I would like to say we started around the 2 month mark.
Yes, you can start that early or even earlier! In fact, starting that early often makes things far easier as your child gets older.
When we were traveling before our big overseas move, independent playtime wasn’t a realistic option for us. There was too much excitement and not really a good place for him to play alone without interruption. So for 6 weeks, we went without independent playtime.
Today I’d like to talk about re-starting independent playtime late or after a long break. Many of these principles can apply to starting independent play with an older child, as well as continuing independent play with a child who is protesting it.
1. Choose a safe space.
Anytime a child is playing alone it has to be completely safe for their age and developmental level. It is common to use a playpen from the time of crawling until 18 months (We are currently using the playpen at nearly 14 months and it is working well).
After that time period, children are often moved to room time, in which they play alone in their bedroom or a playroom. If you visit my post Teaching Kids to Play Independently, I have a chart that shows ages and safe locations for each age range.
2. Start with a short duration.
If you are just getting back to independent play, it’s very possible your child will tolerate it for less amount of time than before. For example, if your child was playing alone for an hour before, he may only tolerate 15 minutes the first time back. You can continue to build on that each day until you reach the desired amount of time.
You can even start with as little as 5 minutes if your child is very resistant. You can continue adding 5 minutes onto that each day until you get to your desired goal time. If your child is more willing maybe 15 minutes the first day, 20 minutes the second day, 25 minutes the third day, and so on and so forth.
3. Set the timer.
Setting the timer helps remind your child that independent play is over when the timer in the room sounds, rather when he cries out or protests. It also helps you, as a parent, commit to a set amount of time.
If you set the timer for 15 minutes, then independent play will be 15 minutes, regardless if your child doesn’t want to do it or not. Over time, a kids start adjusting and enjoy independent play again.
4. Only start what you intend to finish.
Stay committed to independent play if you are just getting back to it or starting late. It is something that works best if done every day. This helps kids learn and expect this activity in his every day routine. They are also less likely to protest and enjoy independent play if done daily.
Give it a couple of weeks or even a month to try and reach a goal amount of time for your child. Starting something new is an adjustment and can take time. Independent play is meant to serve both you and your child, so it’s worth staying committed to over time.
5. Know age-appropriate durations.
There is a chart in my post Teaching Kids to Play Independently to help gauge what is a reasonable duration of independent play for any given age. Those are not hard and fast rules; they are simply a guide to better serve you when deciding a good amount of time for your child.
At one year of age, we did 1 hour of independent play in our home. Some days it was only 45 minutes because we had a busy day, but regardless, we tried fit it in daily. You could do any amount of time that you feel is best for your child and your family.
6. How we do it in our home.
I like to do independent play first thing in the morning after breakfast because I feel this is when our kids were most patient and able to focus on a given task. You want your child to be well rested and well fed when starting. We get up eat breakfast, potty, clean diaper, and then off to the guest bedroom where I have the pack n’ play set up. Currently, he is usually in independent play from 8 am – 9 am.
I have several toys that I chose for him in the playpen waiting. He is usually excited when he sees toys that he only gets to play with once a day. Next, I set the timer and tell him that I love him and that I will be back to get him soon. Using a phrase at the beginning of independent play is a great way to regularly cue your child to this activity.
Once the timer goes off, I go into the room and get him. I notice and observe how well he did that whole time by himself. I try to be upbeat and positive for him.
7. Troubleshooting independent playtime.
Always try to set up the playpen in an area where you can see your child enough to check in without them seeing you.
If your child sees you, there is a good chance they will want to stop playing and come out.
If your child is really against it, you may need to go in and get your child. I usually try to wait until there is a break in the protesting or crying.
If at all possible, I try to empathize with protesting (e.g. “This is hard for you.”). When you go in to get your child, your confidence and positivity about the situation will help your child feel comfortable.
For more on providing reassurance without rescue:
- How to Calm a 1 Year Old Tantrum Down in Minutes
- 7 Things That Will Change How You Try to Stop a Temper Tantrum
- One Big Myth About Stopping Toddler Tantrums
Independent play is a great activity that’ll serve both you and your child.
You’ll have a block of time to get things done around the house each day, and your child will have time to play alone, learning better problem solving, creativity, self-play adeptness, and focusing skills along the way.
Print this free printable!
This post comes with a free printable to give you an easy step-by-step guide to raise independent kids. Plus, remember what independent skills are age-appropriate for your kids!
Here’s a sneak peek…
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Want more on parenting?
- How to Tame Your Child’s Tantrum With Two Simple Words
- 2 Year Old Not Listening? Try This Remarkable Tip
- How to Build Cooperation and Better Listening Using a Printable Daily Schedule for Kids
- 5 Sample Daily Toddler Schedules From Real Moms
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When I read the first post you wrote on this topic, I tried teaching my daughter for a good few weeks. I wasn’t consistent, though, and I basically quit after that time because it just wasn’t working. I’m going to try again, because the only time she really plays by herself is if I give her some dishes to “wash.” She likes to play in the water!
Whether you decide to try the play pen or room time, I know some moms that stay by their child for the first day and gradually start distancing themselves until they are outside the room. Some start with just 5 minutes and then the timer goes off and this is it for the first day. Then keep adding 5 minutes each day and see what happens. It can be a challenging thing to start with a child that hasn’t done it before. Let me know how it goes!!
Lauren, We’re so the same and yet so different =) the whole concept of structured independent play is really pretty foreign to me, I’ve never owned a play pen and I am probably the least organized person in the world as far as routines go with my kids, but I so admire how deliberate you are about all of these things. I know that kids really benefit from consistency, so yay for you! I made sure to pin it– although it seems I’m definitely not the first!
It’s okay to not do things like structured independent playtime! You are an awesome mom, and that is the beautiful thing about parenting, we can read the information and make a decision that be meets the needs of the family and the kids. Independent play is definitely not a requirement, but it is an awesome tool for moms looking to get things done, while fostering independence. Thanks so much for visiting. I always love having you around for a good chat 😉
Lauren, I do think having structured time for our children is important. I did this in a way with my girls, but they were usually together. Even though mine are older now, I am working on having them be a little more independent and work on things on their own. Good for kids. Good for mom.
Thanks for sharing Elizabeth! I agree, independence can be good for everyone all around!
I just happened onto your blog today and love what you have about independent play and believe it to be super necessary and beneficial. I was wondering though, we are currently in a one bedroom apartment with a 21 month old, energy full, inquisitive (i.e. getting into any and everything) sweet boy. I’ve read on an RIE child care site about having a “no-free,” safe zone for kids to play, but lack that in our tiny apartment. I feel like the play pen is too small for my son to play independently in for an hour plus, and was wondering if you had any ideas for what else we can do to get him beginning independent play. Thanks in advance!
Yeah…I agree at 21 months, he likely has outgrown the playpen. You could…I’m pulling at strings here…get one of those large gates that form a circle. Do you know what I’m talking about? This would still offer him a safe zone to play that would be larger than a playpen. Love that you’ve read about RIE! It is not my main focus…I tend to follow a language of listening approach, but RIE is great too and I love reading and hearing about it. I often listen to Janet Lansbury’s podcast…UnRuffled.
Hi. We bought a round little plastic fence type barrier that formed a circle & had a gate for our son when we needed to create a safe space for him to play without us having to worry about him getting in to anything. This is what we used & love it. We now have it outside to give him a free, safe place to play out in the backyard when the weather is nice. Or you could maybe close off your kitchen after baby proofing it & let him play in there.
Baby Playpen Kids Activity Centre Safety Play Yard Home Indoor Outdoor New Pen (multicolour, Classic set 14 panel) https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06WWQCYSC/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_i_r7gLCbDNCTTEF
Lauren, Thank you for this post! Ive been looking for some information on this and it makes sense. I need to start making independent play part of our routine. However, I have 15 month old twin boys. When I leave them alone in the playroom 8 out of 10 times they get in some kind of fight. Would you recommend I seperate them? Divide the room maybe?
Yes, separate them for sure. Diving the room would work if you don’t have enough space. Great idea!
Are you saying give independent play time in addition to nap time?
How do you feel about independent play time in a playpen with the television on? My son is 17 months old and extremely active. He does fine left alone in the play pen with his toys if the TV is on, but not so well without it. He will play with his toys while watching his show & be content. Thanks for your advice!
So, I found this article after trying to get my boys to play alone for 5 minutes… only to have my big guy COMPLETELY lose his mind… screaming, yelling, climbing the gate… I have 3.5 year old and a 19 month old. My little guy could play alone all day happily, but my big guy wants to be with me at all times. I teach, so I do have long breaks a few times a year and have tried independent play before, but never successfully. Advice for an extremely resistant 3.5 year old?
Our almost 3 year old is pretty much incapable of independent play and it’s exhausting. She does to daycare 3 times a week and spends a 4th day with grandparents so I’m only with her 3 days a week. How do I manage to teach her this skill without having the opportunity for consistency?