Menu

How to help your children learn to play all by themselves

Here are some expert ways to make free play work for your child

child-play-alone

There is quite a bit of advice out there encouraging parents to promote unstructured play for their children. Free time allows children to feel what it's like to be bored, gives them a chance to work out their differences with siblings and lets them solve their own problems without an adult. Free time also encourages independence, increases social skills and builds resilience.

While this is true for children who are ready to be independent, already have a solid understanding of their social world and can trust that they are not in danger when something goes wrong, free time can be challenging for children with less developed executive functioning and social skills or anxiety.


Two reasons children may have difficulty with unstructured play may be that they tend to be blissfully solo players, or never leave you alone players. Your child may not fall exclusively into one of these categories, but most children have moments that their parents can relate to these ideas.

The blissful solo player

Some children prefer to play alone. Perhaps this is just their temperament. Additionally, many children identified with an autism spectrum disorder or with a diagnosis of dyspraxia (trouble with movement), solo play often feels like the safest kind of play. No one enters their space, no one throws off their plan, and if allowed to, they never have to transition away from this blissful play to do such boring things as use the bathroom or eat a snack.

Also, many children on the autism spectrum have superb memories of television shows they may act out in play as well as heightened interests and an ability to hyper-focus that allows them to enjoy their solo play.

While parents of the blissful solo player might be grateful for this time to make dinner or talk on the phone, at the same time they often have a gut feeling that too much of this play may limit their child's social opportunities and language development.

The never leaves you alone player

If your child falls into this category, you're already nodding your head. These are the children who are either too anxious to play alone, too distractible to settle into play or tell us they are too bored to play on their own. Therefore, they persistently seek attention from parents who feel they need to be in the same room or constantly entertain the child.

These play patterns come from several different reasons. Children experiencing anxiety may follow you around the house and need support to play away from you. Children who are developing their executive functioning often struggle to plan and begin their play and sustain their attention long enough to stick with their play. Experts state that executive functioning skills really start to develop between age three and five, but that it is a skill that children and adolescents are always working on.

This might look like a child who complains of being bored when you see lots of things for them to do or the child who loses interest quickly and doesn't have the skills to come up with a new idea. If forced not to bother their parents, these children may wander around and never settle into an activity. While it is a strength that these children often ask for help and engage with parents, relying on parents too much can limit their independent opportunities for problem-solving that can grow resilience.

Support your child's free time by making a routine when there is no routine

The most important strategy when teaching free time is to schedule it like you would any other activity. I often recommend framing free time as "free-choice" time rather than an open-ended free for all—this can prevent "the blissful solo player" from becoming withdrawn and "the never leaves you alone player" from clinging to you or wandering around aimlessly.

Having a general daily schedule can be helpful. Make sure the schedule is not too detailed—if too complicated, and something doesn't go as planned, this could lead to an additional problem of inflexibility when the plan changes.

Usually, something like the following, written on a whiteboard in your kitchen, does the trick:

  • Morning List (e.g., dressed, brush teeth, feed the cat)
  • Breakfast
  • Morning Activity
  • Snack
  • Free-Choice time
  • Lunch
  • Afternoon Activity
  • Snack
  • Free-Choice time
  • Dinner
  • Night time list (I.e. bath/shower, brush teeth, stories, etc.)

The trick is to make this routine consistent and then follow through with morning and afternoon activities—which are chosen by the parent—and free-choice time—which is selected by the child.

Sit down with your child and create a free-choice menu where they can practice brainstorming things they like to do alone knowing that they will be expected to play alone for a certain amount of time.

How this helps the blissful solo player

The blissful solo player will benefit from a written routine with a few tweaks. This child will love free-choice time, so this is where we must help them expand it by adding options to their list.

The goal for the blissful solo player is to transition away from free time play successfully. The trick here is to join them just before the transition. Engage with them, play with them and then help them transition by moving on together, being as encouraging as possible. This is where a visual STOP sign or PAUSE "button" is great to put on the play area so that kids know it's time to move on and they can come back to it later.

How this helps the never leaves you alone player

As the expert on your child, you will need to decide what an appropriate time and location will be for the free-choice time. Start with what you think your child can do and expand the time frame or distance from there.

Some children will need you to get them started on an activity or be reassured when something is a small problem they can solve on their own and when it's okay to come get you for help.

Use a timer to let them know when they are done with their play. Remember, you are teaching them how to be independent, so encourage and praise their successes. Let them know how helpful it was that you were able to call a friend, check your email or feed the baby.

Just remember, for many children more structure is better, visuals are helpful even when a child is highly verbal, and consistent schedules are often magical.

A word about activity time:

Activity time on the schedule may be something mandatory, like a doctor's appointment, or it could be an errand, like the grocery store. It could also be a playdate to encourage those who would not pick peer play for free-choice time, or it could be pretend play time for those who need practice in symbolic thinking.

Either way, setting up the expectation that the adult is in charge of that time can be a helpful way to set boundaries and create a balance of work and play within a summer day.

More than anything, have fun!

This article originally appeared on www.dremilyking.com.

Check out some of our favorite toys that captivate kiddos and make independent play more successful.

Janod splash easel 

Janod splash easel

This colorful easel calls budding artists to create with a chalkboard on one side and a magnetic dry erase board on the other. The attached paper roll makes sure there's always something to draw on, and the supply tray is perfect for holding chalk, dry erase markers, crayons and whatever other materials they may need.

$99

Plan Toys detective set

Plan Toys detective set

Solving mysteries takes some quiet solo time. Complete with an eye glasses, walkie-talkie, camera, a red lens, a periscope and a bag, your little detective is ready for action.

$40

Lovevery block set

Lovevery block set

This science-backed 70-piece play set keeps little ones of all ages engaged and learning in countless ways. Whether they build, roll, stack, lace or create, they're sure to find new ways to use each piece every time they pick them up.

$90

We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

You might also like:

    Rarely is a woman more concerned with what her body needs than when she's pregnant. We start to question and research everything, right? From swearing off turkey sandwiches to diving down the rabbit hole of prenatal supplements that make up what we lack, the stress of overthinking is real, mama.

    One of the main reasons we launched the Motherly Shop is to help take some of that stress away. We've tracked down the best brands and products developed by people (and in many cases, women!) that truly work to serve the needs of real mamas, especially throughout the overwhelming transition into motherhood.

    That's why we knew we had to introduce mamas-to-be to the science-backed and expertly-formulated protein collagen for pregnancy from Needed. And as one of our bestsellers, it's clear you've been looking for it, too.

    Keep reading Show less
    Shop

    14 outdoor toys your kids will want to play with beyond summer

    They transition seamlessly for indoor play.

    With Labor day weekend in the rearview and back-to-school in full swing, most parents are fresh out of boxes to check on their "Fun Concierge" hit list. It's also the point of diminishing returns on investing in summer-only toys. So with that in mind, we've rounded up some of our favorite toys that are not only built to last but will easily make the transition from outdoor to indoor play. Even better, they're Montessori-friendly and largely open-ended so your kids can get a ton of use out of them.

    From sunny backyard afternoons to rainy mornings stuck inside, these toys are sure to keep little ones engaged and entertained.

    Meadow ring toss game

    Plan Toys meadow ring toss game

    Besides offering a fantastic opportunity to hone focus, coordination, determination and taking turns, lawn games are just plain fun. Set them up close together for the littles and spread them out when Mom and Dad get in on the action. With their low profile and rope rings, they're great for indoors as well.

    $30

    Balance board

    Plan Toys balance board

    Balance boards are a fabulous way to get the wiggles out. This one comes with a rope attachment, making it suitable for even the youngest wigglers. From practicing their balance and building core strength to working on skills that translate to skateboarding and snowboarding, it's a year-round physical activity that's easy to bring inside and use between Zoom classes, too!

    $75

    Detective set

    Plan Toys detective setDetective Set

    This set has everything your little detective needs to solve whatever mystery they might encounter: an eye glasses, walkie-talkie, camera, a red lens, a periscope and a bag. Neighborhood watch? Watch out.

    $40

    Wooden doll stroller

    Janod wooden doll strollerWooden Doll Stroller

    Take their charges on a stroll around the block with this classic doll stroller. With the same versatility they're used to in their own ride, this heirloom quality carriage allows their doll or stuffy to face them or face the world.

    $120

    Sand play set

    Plan Toys sand set

    Whether you're hitting the beach or the backyard sandbox, this adorable wooden sand set is ready for action. Each scoop has an embossed pattern that's perfect for sand stamping. They're also totally suitable for water play in the wild or the bathtub.

    $30

    Water play set

    Plan Toys water play set

    Filled with sand or water, this tabletop sized activity set keeps little ones busy, quiet and happy. (A mama's ideal trifecta 😉). It's big enough to satisfy their play needs but not so big it's going to flood your floors if you bring the fun inside on a rainy day.

    $100

    Mini golf set

    Plan Toys mini golf set

    Fore! This mini golf set is lawn and living room ready. Set up a backyard competition or incorporate into homeschooling brain breaks that shift focus and build concentration.

    $40

    Vintage scooter balance bike

    Janod retro scooter balance bike

    Pedals are so 2010. Balance bikes are the way to go for learning to ride a bike while skipping the training wheels stage altogether. This impossibly cool retro scooter-style is built to cruise the neighborhood or open indoor space as they're learning.

    $121

    Wooden rocking pegasus

    plan toys wooden rocking pegasus

    Your little will be ready to take flight on this fun pegasus. It gently rocks back and forth, but doesn't skimp on safety—its winged saddle, footrests and backrest ensure kids won't fall off whether they're rocking inside or outside.

    $100

    Croquet set

    Plan Toys croquet set

    The cutest croquet set we've ever seen! With adorable animal face wooden balls and a canvas bag for easy clean up, it's also crafted to stick around awhile. Round after round, it's great for teaching kiddos math and problem-solving skills as well.

    $45

    Wooden digital camera

    fathers factory wooden digital camera

    Kids get the chance to assemble the camera on their own then can adventure anywhere to capture the best moments. With two detachable magnetic lenses, four built-in filters and video recorder, your little photographer can tap into their creativity from summertime to the holidays.

    $179

    Wooden bulldozer toy

    plan toys wooden bulldozer toy

    Whether they're digging up sand in the backyad or picking up toys inside, kids can get as creative as they want picking up and moving things around. Even better? Its wooden structure means it's not an eye sore to look at wherever your digger drops it.

    $100

    Pull-along hippo

    janod toys pull along hippo toy

    There's just something so fun about a classic pull-along toy and we love that they seamlessly transition between indoor and outdoor play. Crafted from solid cherry and beechwood, it's tough enough to endure outdoor spaces your toddler takes it on.

    $33

    Baby forest fox ride-on

    janod toys baby fox ride on

    Toddlers will love zooming around on this fox ride-on, and it's a great transition toy into traditional balance bikes. If you take it for a driveway adventure, simply use a damp cloth to wipe down the wheels before bringing back inside.

    $88

    We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

    Shop

    10 photos to take on baby’s first day that you'll cherish forever

    You'll obsess over these newborn baby pictures.

    Bethany Menzel: Instagram + Blog

    As you're preparing for baby's birth, we bet you're dreaming of all of the amazing photos you'll take of your precious new babe. As a professional photographer and mama, I have some tips for newborn photos you'll want to capture.

    Here are the 10 photos you will want to take on baby's first day.

    Keep reading Show less
    Life